Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas proposes $20 million in mental health programs

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L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas proposed Tuesday setting aside $20 million for programs that keep mentally ill people out of jails. His move came on the heels of a presentation to the board by L.A. District Attorney Jackie Lacey on the need for more diversion programs for mentally ill offenders.

Ridley-Thomas said that while the county tentatively plans to spend about $2 billion on a jail construction and renovation plan--much of it geared towards housing mentally ill inmates--L.A. County has about $3 million set aside in the coming two years for diverting such offenders.

"The proposed investment in diversion is inadequate," Ridley-Thomas said.

The board opted to study the $20 million motion and vote on it as early as next week.

During Lacey's presentation, supervisors expressed their support for creating jail alternatives in L.A. County.

"We know it's going to work, we know it's working in other places," said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. "And if we can reduce the population even modestly, the difference we're making to the individuals involved, to our society, and to our pocketbook is quite significant."

Supervisor Mike Antonovich, however, said any diversion programs that are implemented would not replace the need for a new jail in L.A. County.

"The realities facing our aging Central Jail, we need to also move forward in that direction as well," Antonovich said.

Lacey, who has not taken a position on whether L.A. needs a new jail, hosted a summit of 60 law enforcement leaders, mental health workers, and attorneys in May as a first step towards comprehensive overhaul of the county criminal justice system's treatment of mentally ill offenders.

Tuesday, she said the group found that 17 percent of the male inmate population and 25 percent of the female jail inmate population in L.A. need some sort of mental health treatment.

"People with mental illness are often dumped back into the street after being stabilized in medical facilities or jails," Lacey said. "There's a moral question at hand in this process. Are we punishing people for simply being sick. Public safety should have a priority, but justice should always come first."

The jails have struggled with the overflow of mentally ill inmates. Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice sent a letter to L.A., warning of a sub-constitutional quality of care for mentally ill offenders and a high number of inmate suicides. The D.O.J. suggested that the county look into alternatives to jail to reduce the inmate population.

Lacey's report identified six preliminary goals for the county: training for law enforcement and court personnel, expanding the county's capacity for behavioral health treatment, a data study of what's needed in L.A., improving communication between agencies, develop policies and procedures to guide court personnel, and create crisis centers and more supportive housing in L.A.

She's currently working on a report with the federal government's Gaines Center to draw up a report of specifics, with an expected completion data in September.

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