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D.A. Jackie Lacey calls jailing of mentally ill a 'moral question'

D.A. Jackie Lacey calls jailing of mentally ill people "inefficient, ineffective and in many cases inhumane"
L.A. County supervisor wants $20 million set aside for diversion programs for mentally ill defendants
The number of mentally ill inmates in county jails, most on misdemeanors, has increased 89% since 2011

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey told county supervisors Tuesday that gaps in services and communication breakdowns between agencies have resulted in more mentally ill people being sent to jail.

Lacey, who is heading up a group of leaders from different agencies focused on expanding diversion programs, called the issue a "moral question."

"The use of the jail as a mental health ward is inefficient, ineffective and in many cases it is inhumane," she said. "It is inhumane to the people who are mentally ill, because we're punishing them for being too sick to solve their problem by themselves."

Lacey said the percentage of inmates in county jails who are mentally ill has increased by 89% since 2011 and now stands at 17% of the male population and 24% of the female population. A sizeable number of those inmates are being held on misdemeanor charges.

A detailed report recommending how to overhaul the county's system for dealing with mentally ill defendants is expected to be completed in the fall.

In the meantime, Lacey said the working group agreed that training for all criminal justice officials -- including police officers, prosecutors and judges -- on how to handle people with mental illnesses and what resources are available should be at the "top of the list."

They also agreed that the county should expand the capacity of treatment programs for people in the justice system, do a detailed study on services needed, improve coordination between agencies, put policies in place at the district attorney's office and elsewhere on dealing with mental health issues and create "stablization centers" where people undergoing a mental health crisis could be brought instead of to overcrowded emergency rooms. 

After Lacey's presentation, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas asked his colleagues to set aside $20 million for expanded mental health diversion programs. The proposal is slated to come before the board next week.

Follow Abby Sewell @sewella for more Los Angeles County news.

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