Judge lets homeless ex-inmates fight for mental health services

A federal judge said Tuesday that a group of homeless people can continue to fight Los Angeles County in court over jail release policies that they claim perpetuate the cycle of inmates with untreated mental illness bouncing from incarceration to skid row. 

The ruling came in a court battle over a settlement reached earlier this year between the Sheriff's Department and federal authorities as part of an effort to end deputy abuse of inmates and to improve chronically poor treatment of mentally ill inmates.

The homeless people — former inmates with mental illness stemming from a personality disorder, developmental disability, dementia or substance abuse — had asked to intervene in the settlement to receive better jail discharge services, including prescriptions for medication and referrals to community mental health treatment providers.

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Los Angeles County had reserved these special discharge efforts for inmates with more serious mental illness. The county asked that the homeless people's claims be dismissed because it was uncertain whether they would land in jail again.

U.S. District Judge Dean Pregerson in Los Angeles said the homeless people had demonstrated they had been jailed dozens, and in some cases hundreds, of times, in part because of their mental health conditions.  

"In some cases, it appears that [the former inmates] have entered the jail system largely as a result of their mental health conditions, and that those conditions have then been aggravated by incarceration and, in some cases, the denial of medication," Pregerson wrote in his order.

Mark Rosenbaum, director of Public Counsel Opportunity Under Law, which represented the former inmates, said the jail-to-skid-row cycle was a major cause of homelessness in Los Angeles, and called the ruling a "first step" in bringing it to an end.

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Sheriff's spokewoman Nicole Nishida said the department was reviewing the court's ruling.

"Mentally ill jail inmates and homelessness are highly complex issues that require a multi-faceted response in order to adequately address," she said in an email. "The sheriff is committed to working with his local, state, federal and private sector partners in order to develop long-term solutions to the mentally ill and homeless issues facing our county."

gale.holland@latimes.com

Twitter: @geholland

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UPDATES:

12 p.m.: This article was updated to include a response from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

This article was originally published May 17, 2016, at 6:47 p.m.

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