A new report by the Los Angeles-based activist group Dignity Power Now found that 43 percent of L.A. jail inmates diagnosed with serious mental illnesses are African American. That's higher than their percentage in both the general population (9.6 percent) and in the general jail population (about 30 percent).
"The racial breakdown of the jail population is striking," said Mark-Anthony Johnson, who assembled the report along with law students at UCLA's International Human Rights Law Program.
Members of the group have been invited to present their findings to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on Tuesday in Geneva, Switzerland.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Justice sent a letter to L.A. County, outlining what it described as unconstitutional conditions for mentally ill inmates in jails. Officials recommended the county seek alternatives to jail for as many of those inmates as possible.
Johnson said L.A.'s jail system — the largest in the nation — is a good indicator of what's happening elsewhere.
"The largest jail facilities that also operate as mental health facilities — all of them have had issues with abuse of folks with mental health conditions," Johnson said.
Johnson and others said the glut of mentally ill in jails can be traced back to three decades of cuts to public mental health services in Los Angeles County. Other large jail systems in New York and Chicago have similar problems.
The report seeks to draw attention to the effect those cuts in mental health budgets have on communities with high levels of incarceration.
L.A. County is struggling with the question of how to best care for mentally ill who commit crimes.
In May, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors approved a $1.7 billion jail reconstruction plan that includes a Downtown L.A. jail devoted to housing mentally ill inmates. Last week, the board authorized $14.5 million in contracts for architectural and other planning for the jail.
There's also tentative support from the board for seeking out a more community care-based model. Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey is expected to present a report on alternatives to jail for mentally ill offenders to the board in September.