L.A. County will move 1,000 mentally ill inmates out of jails

The Los Angeles Times, August 11, 2015

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Setting a path for the future of the Los Angeles County jail system, the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a plan to eventually move 1,000 offenders with mental health issues out of lock-ups as well as to build a new downtown jail.

The moves reflect the growing debate about how the county incarcerates inmates, particularly the mentally ill, who make up 20% of the roughly 17,000 people behind bars. Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey and others have called for a new approach that moves many mentally ill people out of jail and into treatment centers with hopes that they will get help and avoid committing more crimes.

The supervisors voted 3-1 to build a 3,885-bed jail downtown that would replace the decrepit Men’s Central Jail, as well as to create a new women’s jail in Lancaster. Supervisor Don Knabe voted no and Hilda Solis abstained.

Critics say the new jail would be far too large.

In June, the board — including the two new supervisors, Solis and Sheila Kuehl — pulled back on a plan that called for an even larger, 4,860-bed, $2-billion jail. Some supervisors asked whether the jail should be smaller because some inmates are being diverted to treatment facilities and the jail population continues to shrink as a result of Prop. 47, which reduced the penalties for many property and drug crimes.

The new downtown jail will focus on treating inmates with mental health and substance abuse issues. A new women’s jail at the now-vacant Mira Loma Detention Center will replace the overcrowded women’s lock-up in Lynwood.

Sheriff’s officials had voiced concerns that a delay in finalizing the jail plan could jeopardize $100 million in state money for the women’s facility.

On Tuesday, the supervisors considered competing plans, including one from Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich for a 4,600-bed central jail and one from Solis for a 3,243-bed facility.

“The sad truth is that for the foreseeable future, there are some people who will need to be incarcerated for the safety of the community,” Solis said. She added that the county should aim for an eventual 15% reduction in the size she proposed.

“It’s my view that if we build jail beds, we will fill them,” she said.

The supervisors  settled on Kuehl’s compromise plan for 3,885 beds.

Kuehl said her jail plan accounts for more offenders being placed in treatment centers rather than behind bars.

“I see those two things moving forward in tandem,” she said. “I’m trying to find a way to change this system, but I am not fantasizing that it changes in a minute.”

The proposals for the new jail were not listed on the public meeting agenda. Instead, during Tuesday’s meeting, the supervisors tacked them onto an ambitious diversion plan for mentally ill offenders proposed by Kuehl and Mark Ridley-Thomas.

Jail reform advocates praised the diversion plan but opposed the jail plan. They accused the board of violating open meeting laws by voting on the jail plan.

Anna Mouradian, a justice aide to Antonovich, said the board has a deadline of Aug. 17 to show its commitment to the jail plan. On that date, the state public works board is scheduled to discuss funding for the Mira Loma project.

“This is an enormous construction project,” said Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California, who threatened a lawsuit over the vote. “It should not be rushed ahead, no matter how much this board is afraid of losing money for Mira Loma.”

After approving the jail plan, the board voted 4-1, with Knabe casting the dissenting vote, to move forward with the plan to place some mentally ill offenders in community treatment programs.

The board’s new initiatives come on top of a settlement with federal authorities announced last week that aims to improve the treatment of mentally ill inmates in Los Angeles County jails.

The plan approved Tuesday, which follows recommendations from a task force headed by Lacey, sets up an Office of Diversion and creates a fund to pay for more mental health services.

Some of the money would go toward 1,000 housing units for mentally ill defendants who might otherwise be in jail. A similar, small-scale program was launched at the San Fernando courthouse last year.

The plan also expands outpatient treatment programs, urgent care centers and facilities for people with the most severe mental health issues.

On Tuesday, Lacey praised the board’s diversion plan.

“The old way of doing things simply isn’t working and isn’t just,” she said.

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