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Jackie Lacey says L.A. County should stop locking up so many people

ColumnHealthJustice SystemCrimeDiseases and IllnessesGroundhog DayLos Angeles County Board of Supervisors
'The current system is, simply put, unjust,' Lacey says
'If you spend day in and day out in a courtroom, it becomes like Groundhog Day'
One case in particular, involving a young female graduate student, convinced Lacey the system was crazy

You wouldn't expect the county's top prosecutor to step up to a microphone and say it's time to stop locking up so many people. But that's exactly what L.A. County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey did last week. She told the county Board of Supervisors that, in her opinion, 1,000 or more people with mental illness who are currently incarcerated should probably be somewhere other than in jail.

"It is clear, even to those of us in law enforcement, that we can do better in Los Angeles County," she said, which is why she's leading a task force that is studying less expensive and more effective alternatives than incarceration. "The current system is, simply put, unjust."

Despite hearing this, the supervisors voted to proceed with a nearly $2-billion jail construction project designed to accommodate about 3,200 inmates with a mental illness — the same number currently locked up.

If you're scratching your head, you aren't alone.

The supes also voted to study diversion, which was nice, except that they got it backward. If they'd scoped out better options first, they might have discovered that it makes sense to build a smaller and less expensive jail and invest more in drug and alcohol and mental health treatment, cutting into both the jail and homeless populations. The county already has roughly 1,200 people in diversion programs, a number that could grow if not for funding and resource limitations.

Lacey didn't want to talk about the politics of the matter when I visited her Thursday. But she was happy to explain how she came to believe in diversion as the more humane and effective option in some cases.

"It has been an evolution," she said. "If you spend day in and day out in a courtroom, it becomes like Groundhog Day.... You're seeing the same people with the same issues — drug addiction and mental illness," many of them in for low-level, non-violent crimes. "You start to wonder: Are we really making a difference, especially when you consider that California has such a high recidivism rate?"

In 2009, Lacey was asked to oversee a pilot program aimed at keeping women from being returned to state prison for minor violations. Instead, they were sent to a residential program, counseled and reunited with their children. Lacey said graduates returned to prison at rates far below the average.

The next year, she helped establish the county's veterans court, which used a similar model for men and women who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"It had the same sort of success rate as the women's re-entry program," said Lacey, who then turned her attention to defendants with mental disorders.

One case in particular, involving a young female graduate student, convinced Lacey the system was crazy.

"She had her first bout with mental illness and ended up running out of her apartment and looking to get into a car to get away from whoever was chasing her," Lacey said. "It was in her head."

The woman spotted a car with keys in the ignition. The driver had gotten out to open a gate.

"She jumps in and attempts to back out," said Lacey, but the owner reached in to stop her. The woman landed in county jail, charged with carjacking, and her mother flew out from Tennessee to talk to Lacey.

"I can tell she'd been crying and she says, 'You don't know my daughter, but she's never been in trouble, and she's just been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.'"

The mother pleaded for her daughter to be released pending trial, promising to get her the help she needed. Lacey gave in, and the woman pleaded guilty to a lesser charge that didn't require a prison sentence.

Two years later, Lacey checked back in to see how it had turned out, and learned that the woman had been in treatment and crime-free. And yet Lacey was still troubled by the fact that the woman will forever be a felon, and may have trouble finding work because of it.

"What behavior are we punishing? She is mentally ill," said Lacey. "That just strikes me as incredibly unjust."

On a tour of the overstuffed mental wards in county jail last year, Lacey was disturbed by conditions there — specifically the chaining of inmates to tables for therapy sessions. She and jail commander Terri McDonald began sharing ideas last December on a better system, and Lacey formed a task force that includes McDonald, court and law enforcement officials, the county mental health department and numerous other public and nonprofit agencies.

Lacey sent Assistant D.A. Bill Hodgman to Miami and San Antonio to study successful diversion programs, and she went to see another one for herself.

"I'm the district attorney of progressive Los Angeles, and I'm down in Memphis, Tenn., where police officers are spending 40 hours of training learning how to deal with mentally ill people so they don't have a Kelly Thomas situation like they had in Orange County," she said of the young mentally ill man who died after an altercation with police officers in Fullerton.

Lacey said she wants that same kind of training to be mandatory for all police officers. She wants more emergency units composed of police officers and mental health workers, and pre-arrest diversion to crisis and referral centers. She wants guidelines for prosecutors on which cases to divert. And she wants to explore funding options for more community-based treatment and housing.

This won't be easy, Lacey said. But if you're known as the county with the largest mental institution — a jail — shouldn't you be the county that works hardest on reforms?

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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