Dispute arises over use of state money for county diversion program


Jerry Powers, center, chief probation officer for Los Angeles County, addresses the County Board of Supervisors on Aug. 20, 2013. Powers is pushing back against a proposal to shift millions of dollars in state money from his department to a new Office of Diversion and Reentry.

(Gary Friedman)

An internal tussle has developed that could complicate Los Angeles County’s ambitious plan to send more mentally ill criminal defendants into treatment programs rather than jail cells.

County supervisors want to cover the cost with a blend of county and state money. But some officials are questioning whether supervisors can legally tap some of the accounts they have in mind.

Supervisors want to set up an Office of Diversion and Reentry, to be paid for with tens of millions of dollars, including some from a pot of state money intended to help convicted felons avoid returning to prison for probation violations.

Over the last five years, more than $200 million of the money has been sent to the county probation department. However, under the plan approved by supervisors earlier this month, half of it would be shifted to operate the new jail diversion program for the mentally ill.


Probation chief Jerry Powers has protested, saying the money must go to his department and be spent on felony probationers. In a letter to county supervisors, Powers warned the board’s plan “would likely jeopardize future [state] funding” for a wide range of programs.

State officials echoed Powers’ concerns and said they have raised the issue with county leaders.

“We have always understood [money authorized by Senate Bill 678] to be a probation program, and the dollars in the program are calculated based on the number of people that probation is keeping out of prison or jail,” said Diane Cummins, a special assistant to Gov. Jerry Brown. “It seems clear in the statute that the money has to go to probation.”

The new diversion office would be part of the county’s Health Services Department, not the probation department.


Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who proposed the new diversion program, said the issue is being reviewed by county attorneys.

“We rely on legal opinions rather than that which is being asserted by a given department head,” he said.

Ridley-Thomas said even if the state money can’t be used for the new diversion office, the board’s “commitment to diversion is so high that I suspect the board members will be motivated to find the necessary resources to fund” the program.

In the meantime, the supervisors have set aside $30 million in strictly county money as a start-up fund for the new office. Joel Sappell, a spokesman for the county chief executive, said that amount should give the new diversion office a “strong start and solid foundation.”

Powers, in an interview, said he was willing to work with the supervisors to find a way to pay for the programs without shifting the state money away from his department. “Their heart’s in the right place with regard to emphasizing diversion,” he said.

The supervisors are scheduled to give a new approval to the diversion plan next week. The first vote on the plan sparked some ancillary controversy when jail reform advocates and Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey accused the board of violating the state’s open meetings law.

At issue was the board’s decision to include in the diversion program discussion a separate vote to proceed with design and construction of a new Men’s Central Jail downtown. No public notice had been given that the jail matter, controversial in its own right, would be up for a vote. Lacey formally advised the board that it had violated state law. Afterward, the board rescheduled votes on both the diversion plan for mentally ill convicted criminals and the jail construction project.

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


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