County wants plan before funding ways to divert mentally ill from jail

Los Angeles County supervisors postponed a proposal Tuesday to set aside $20 million for programs to divert mentally ill criminal defendants from jails, saying a plan is needed first.

The proposal — suggested by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas — comes as the county is under federal pressure to improve treatment of mentally ill jail inmates and as it embarks on a $2-billion overhaul that includes a new Men’s Central Jail centered around treatment beds for mentally ill inmates.

At the same time, a group headed by Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey has been studying how to expand diversion programs to reduce the number of mentally ill inmates in county lockups. Their report is to be completed in the fall.

Ridley-Thomas called the $20 million “a modest start.”


“It’s just 1% of the entire $2 billion that we allocated for jail construction planning and modernization,” he said. “I think it’s the common practice for this county to set aside dollars when it’s a priority.”

His colleagues also voiced support for diversion, but the majority balked at what Supervisor Gloria Molina described as “throwing money at” the problem without knowing what it would pay for.

“I think, yes, $20 million is only a down payment,” Molina said. “The problem is, we don’t have a plan. That’s what we need.”

Advocates and family members of people struggling with mental illness urged the board to commit to the spending, but the supervisors decided to wait until Sept. 30 and look at how much money is needed during their supplemental budget process.

There are some diversion programs for mentally ill defendants. For instance, about 1,000 people were sent to treatment instead of jail or prison in 2013 through a program that stations mental health social workers in the courts.

The county is planning to set up three new “mental health urgent care centers,” where police can bring suspects with clear psychiatric issues instead of to jail or overcrowded emergency rooms. And a small program is set to start soon at two courthouses in Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s district that would divert chronically homeless, mentally ill people accused of minor crimes and place them in permanent supportive housing.

Lacey said this month that the percentage of inmates in county jails who are mentally ill has increased 89% since 2011 and now stands at 17% of the male inmate population and 24% of the female population.

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