LA Sheriff, US Dept of Justice announce new reforms protecting mentally ill in jails (updated)

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L.A.'s Sheriff's Department released details on new federal oversight of new protocols for the treatment of mentally ill inmates in its jails Wednesday.

KPCC's Frank Stoltze reported Tuesday that the reforms will put an end to a civil lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice alleging a pattern of mistreatment of mentally ill inmates in the county's jails, which are run by the sheriff. 

It’s the latest effort by the federal government and local civil rights leaders to force the Sheriff's Department to fix myriad problems that led to the abrupt resignation of Sheriff Lee Baca last year.

The agreement between was filed along with a complaint that alleges a pattern or practice of inadequate mental health care and excessive force at the jails in violation of prisoners’ federal constitutional rights.

Specifically, its requirements are designed to prevent and respond more effectively to suicides and self-inflicted injuries through measures that include, according to a United States Attorney's Office statement:

  • Additional steps to recognize, assess and treat prisoners with mental illness, from intake to discharge;
  • Significant new training on crisis intervention and interacting with prisoners with mental illness for new and existing custody staff;
  • Improved documentation in prisoners’ medical and mental health records to ensure continuity of care;
  • Improved communication between custody and mental health staff and increased supervision of mentally ill and suicidal prisoners;
  • Steps to mitigate suicide risks within the jails;
  • Increased access to out-of-cell time for mentally ill prisoners; and
  • Improved investigation and critical self-analysis of suicides, suicide attempts and other critical events.

With respect to use of force, the settlement agreement expands critical reforms agreed to by the County and the Sheriff in Rosas v. McDonnell to cover all facilities within the jail system. These reforms include:

  • Enhanced leadership and executive staff engagement;
  • Significant revisions to use-of-force policies, which should significantly reduce the use of excessive force, with added protections for use of force against prisoners with mental illness;
  • Enhanced training for custody and mental health staff;
  • Enhanced data collection and analysis;
  • Enhanced accountability measures, including use-of-force reporting, use-of-force reviews and discipline; and
  • Enhanced grievance procedures.

Once approved by the District Court, the settlement agreement will be court-enforceable and overseen by an independent monitor and a team of mental health and corrections experts.

The new legal settlement was born of "extensive negotiations," with the Sheriff's Department, U.S. Attorney Eileen Decker said at a news conference. She added that its provisions will "usher in new era" for treatment of mentally ill inmates in the county's jail system.

Neither she nor county officials would estimate how much it would cost to implement the reforms. "The cost of doing nothing has been tremendous," said Decker, referring to the toll on mentally ill inmates as well as civil payouts to victims.

McDonnell said the county would need to hire hundreds of new jail deputies and mental health clinicians to meet the conditions of the settlement. He distanced himself from actions taken before he took office last year, saying the agreement is "our promise to the entire community to improve conditions."

"It presents an opportunity to close the book on challenges of the past and be able to write a new chapter in the treatment of those suffering from mental illness," McDonnell said.

Jail watchdogs generally hailed the new federal oversight. At the same time, one said too many mentally ill people are arrested for relatively minor offenses and should never end up in jail in the first place.

"The Sheriff's Department needs to separate itself from being a mental health provider," said Marc-Anthony Johnson with Dignity and Power Now. "Those folks who are mentally ill, our loved ones, need to be in the community, in community-based treatment."

American Civil Liberties Union attorney Peter Eliasberg echoed the sentiment. He also said the sheriff has a long way to go to correct "longstanding problems."

"The problems have been enormous," Eliasberg said. "Now the chickens have come home to roost."

One example that the problems at the jail have not been fully addressed: McDonnell recently suspended 10 deputies amid allegations a jail inmate was restrained in handcuffs for 32 hours without food. The inmate allegedly had attacked a female deputy at a downtown lockup.

Read more about the settlement: 

FACT SHEET: SETTLEMENT AGREEMENT REGARDING LOS ANGELES COUNTY JAILS

This story has been updated.

With contributions from KPCC staff

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