County leaders hope new mentally ill offender diversion program will serve as model

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky announces a new program aimed at diverting chronically homeless, mentally ill offenders from the criminal justice system
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky announces a new program aimed at diverting chronically homeless, mentally ill offenders from the criminal justice system
Rina Palta / KPCC

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County officials Wednesday unveiled a small-scale program aimed at keeping low-level, mentally ill homeless arrestees out of jail that they hope will prove to be a regional model for how to solve a chronic problem.

"We want to demonstrate that it works, demonstrate that it saves money, we want to demonstrate better outcomes for the individuals in the program," Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said at a press conference.

L.A.'s county jails are overcrowded with mentally ill offenders, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and District Attorney's Office. Earlier this year, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors approved a $1.8 billion jail overhaul plan that includes building a new downtown jail to house mostly inmates with serious mental illnesses. 

The new diversion program will offer chronically homeless men and women an alternative to jail when they're initially charged with a misdemeanor or low-level felony. Those who opt to participate will be sent to the San Fernando Community Mental Health Center and, if needed, placed in subsidized housing. They'll also receive mental health and employment services.

But it's limited to 50 participants at a time and only in Van Nuys. It's expected to cost approximately $750,000, funded partially by the county and partially through a federal grant.

Success could lead expanding the program to other courthouses, according to Yaroslavsky. 

"All it takes is a little bit of money and a lot of will to do this countywide," he said. 

"It represents a gigantic step in the right direction," said District Attorney Jackie Lacey. She said the county could fill up 1,000 spots in a program like this.

"Nine hundred and fifty to go," she said. "I'm going to continue to push."

Lacey and her staff have spent the past year researching programs in Miami-Dade County, Fla. and elsewhere in the nation that have shown high success rates. She said the Van Nuys program drew elements from successful programs elsewhere, but was tailored to fit L.A. County's unique needs.

The Van Nuys program does not automatically clear criminal charges. Those arrested on misdemeanors will have to complete 90 days in the program to have their charges dismissed. Those accused of felonies will have to plead guilty or no contest to their charges to be eligible for an 18-month program with similar services. After another 18 months of probation, they can seek dismissal of their charges.

Lacey is expected to present a comprehensive report on diverting mentally ill from the criminal justice system to the county Board of Supervisors in the next couple of months.