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Jackie Lacey's ideas for reducing the number of mentally ill in L.A.'s jails

Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey's efforts have given renewed vigor to mental health and law enforcement professionals

In the ideal world, police responding to a disturbing-the-peace or petty crime call arrive at the scene with the training to discern whether the subject's behavior is due at least in part to a mental health problem. They defuse the situation and turn the subject over to the just-arrived psychiatric evaluation team, or else they take the subject to a crisis center where the intake process is efficient, allowing the officers to go back on patrol while the subject is stabilized, diagnosed and monitored by mental health professionals. Or, if the alleged crime is dangerous and the alleged criminal poses a risk to public safety, he or she is taken to jail.

The family is quickly contacted, and if jail is not the right track, trained experts identify available funding and choose the most appropriate clinic bed from an ample supply across the county. Services continue after the subject is stabilized. County workers and contractors find housing, if it is needed, connect the person with medical care and help him or her find work.

County leaders allocate the funding for such services from budgets that previously were reserved for the costly process of repeatedly arresting, trying, convicting and releasing mentally ill people whose petty crimes were always more a public health and quality of life problem than a criminal justice issue. They vigorously defend their choices to the public.

That's the ideal world. In the real world, jail remains the easiest and sometimes the only option for police arresting mentally ill people. The county is negotiating with the U.S. Department of Justice over a consent decree brought on by mistreatment of mentally ill jail inmates. The Board of Supervisors is settling a class action over abuse by jail deputies.

But the gap between the real and the ideal worlds is slowly shrinking, a point brought home Wednesday when Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey updated the board on her proposed mental health diversion program. It would include all of those ideal attributes, although she acknowledged that progress will take time.

Lacey's efforts have given renewed vigor to mental health and law enforcement professionals who got into their lines of work to help people but for too long have been beaten down by the sheer scope of Los Angeles County's mental health needs.

"Having you on the front end of this has been a game-changer," outgoing Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky told Lacey, and he's right. The county has barely taken the first step on a very long road toward a rational mental health diversion program, but because of Lacey, it appears to be facing the right direction.

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