Readers React

Help, not jail, for the mentally ill

It's great news that Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey wants to move Los Angeles County away from its cruel policy of caging so many people with mental illness. But it's deeply disturbing that Marvin Southard, who heads the Department of Mental Health and wrote a letter to The Times on the subject, won't do the same. ("Jackie Lacey says L.A. County should stop locking up so many people," Column, May 10)

During a recent Board of Supervisors meeting, Southard backed the construction of a massive new "treatment" jail with nearly 3,300 beds for mentally ill inmates, the same number who are currently jailed. But in another, less attention-grabbing public meeting, Southard acknowledged that the "stress of being in jail actually creates a mental illness that wasn't there to start with."

Southard should step up to oppose the incarceration of the mentally ill.

Peter Laarman

Los Angeles

The writer is coordinator of Justice Not Jails.

It's right to condemn the criminalization of mental illness in L.A. County. That the facility I oversee — Chicago's Cook County Jail — and L.A. County's jail system have emerged as the largest mental health institutions in the United States is deplorable.

I face many of the same challenges as L.A. County, including a stunning scarcity of mental health resources in the community and a criminal justice system that lacks empathy for the mentally ill. But there is hope.

In my jail, we've combined screening pre-bond detainees for mental illness with innovative discharge planning to connect them to outside resources. We maintain a 24-hour hotline specifically for ex-inmates in mental health crisis. Through a provision of the Affordable Care Act, we've enrolled 4,000 uninsured inmates in Medicaid, giving them a chance at sustained mental health treatment. The results have been transformative.

Practical reforms and some compassion will go a long way toward alleviating L.A.'s mental health crisis.

Tom Dart

Chicago

The writer is sheriff of Cook County, Ill.

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