Sheriffs join national drive to divert mentally ill offenders from local jails

California officials join national initiative to reduce the number of mentally ill people in county jails

Officials from around California announced Thursday that they will join in a national initiative seeking to reduce the number of mentally ill inmates in local jails.

"You will not find a sheriff in this state or this nation who is not struggling with the growing number of people who are mentally ill in our jails," Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens said at a kickoff event for the initiative in Sacramento.

Convened by the National Assn. of Counties, the Council of State Governments Justice Center and the American Psychiatric Foundation, the initiative will give participating counties access to technical assistance funded, in part, by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance.

County officials will meet at a summit in spring 2016 to talk about strategies for diverting mentally ill offenders from lockups. 

Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell was not present Thursday at the Sacramento event, but said in a previous interview, "Absolutely, we want to be a participant."

“Jails were not built as treatment facilities with long-term treatment in mind,” McDonnell said. “When you think about a jail environment, it’s probably the worst possible place to house or attempt to treat the mentally ill.”

About 20% of the more than 17,000 people housed in Los Angeles County jails are diagnosed with mental illness. The county has been under pressure -- in part by federal officials -- to improve treatment programs for those inmates and to reduce the number of people with mental disorders who enter the jail system in the first place.

A group convened by Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacy is looking at diversion strategies. And later this month, county supervisors are set to revisit plans to rebuild the aging Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles as a facility largely focused on treatment of mentally ill inmates.

State Sen. Robert Hertzberg (D-Los Angeles), who spoke at the event Thursday, urged support for a bill he wrote that would allow state grant money intended to prevent mentally ill offenders from committing new crimes to also be used for diversion programs.

Follow Abby Sewell on Twitter at @sewella for more county news.


3:26 p.m. May 7: This post has been updated with a link to the national initiative and to clarify the role of the Bureau of Justice Assistance.

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