Crime & Justice

ACLU pushing for alternatives to jail for mentally ill

An immate uses a mirror to look outside his cell at the Los Angeles Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles, 19 May 2004.
An immate uses a mirror to look outside his cell at the Los Angeles Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles, 19 May 2004.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

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The ACLU of Southern California and Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law released a report Tuesday calling for alternatives to jail for mentally ill offenders in Los Angeles County.

The report comes at a time of unprecedented debate amongst L.A. County leaders as to how to handle the jail’s swelling population of mentally ill—and pressure from a federal court to improve conditions for such inmates.

Last month, federal court monitors who have been assessing the jails for years sent a letter to L.A. County outlining what they called unconstitutional conditions for mentally ill jail inmates. The court recommended, among other things, finding alternatives to incarceration for inmates who don’t present a public safety threat.

How many inmates that might be is a matter of some debate. District Attorney Jackie Lacey, who’s taken the masthead of the county’s efforts to build alternatives, is expected to present a report to the Board of Supervisors on the topic on July 15.

The ACLU and Bazelon report gives some clues as to how many inmates might qualify—and what alternatives may work.

According to the ACLU report, about 3,200 inmates with a severe mental illness stay in an L.A. County jail on any given night—that’s about 17 percent of the jail population.  Yet only 12 percent of the jail system’s beds are devoted to the mentally ill population.

The ACLU and Bazelon Center recommend L.A. County seek alternatives, like residential community treatment, for at least a third of these inmates who they say are in the jails either awaiting trial on or on convictions for non-violent offenses.

“After drug crimes, status offenses, administrative offenses, and parole violations are the most common charges or convictions for which people with mental illness are held in L.A.’s jails,” the report says.

That population, the groups say, are better served, and at a lower cost to the county, in community, out-of-jail settings—and they point to programs done elsewhere that may work in L.A.

In Miami, for instance, the report says, a program providing supportive housing a wraparound services to mentally ill offenders reduced recidivism from 75 percent to 20 percent. Miami has managed to pay for much of the costs of the program through federal benefits.

Similar programs of various sizes, the report says, exist in San Francisco, New York City, Orange County, and Chicago.

Asked about support for such programs in L.A. County, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, in a statement, said they’re looking forward to Lacey’s report on possible alternatives.

LASD is “fully supportive of alternatives to custody for all low risk inmates, including those who would be more appropriately treated in mental health settings,” the department said in a statement. “We believe we will be benefiting with increased State funding established in the current budget to enhance those services as well as new opportunities that the Affordable Care Act provides for this population.”

The full ACLU report is available here.

Among other statistics, the report mentions: