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An opportunity to overhaul criminal justice in Los Angeles County

An opportunity to overhaul criminal justice in Los Angeles County
L.A. District Attorney Jackie Lacey speaks during a press conference in front of Van Nuys Superior Court to announce a pilot mental-health diversion program in September of 2014 in Van Nuys. (Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County has done a notoriously poor job of spending state money to curb criminal recidivism and divert nonviolent felons from jail. That's its choice — counties have the discretion to spend the money on arresting, jailing, treating, educating or diverting offenders — but for too long the Board of Supervisors chose poorly, spending too little on proven programs to treat rather than jail mentally ill and addicted offenders and to help prevent newly released inmates from committing new crimes after they return home.

In recent months, things have changed dramatically. Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey last week presented a blueprint for treatment of the mentally ill, and the supervisors meanwhile have moved forward rapidly on programs to provide enough services to give people leaving jail or prison a better chance to avoid going back. Now the board has before it a motion to finally fund diversion and reentry services using millions of dollars that have accumulated, unspent, for several years, and to pay for some of Lacey's recommendations. A new Office of Diversion, operating within the county health department, would coordinate funding for housing and other diversion and anti-recidivism programs.

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The new attitude and creative thinking are encouraging. So is the brisk pace — up to a point.

The reason the Board of Supervisors must make choices is obvious: There is not, nor will there ever be, enough money for the county to do everything it needs to do. It needs to replace the dangerous and decrepit Men's Central Jail, and it needs to lower the jail population by treating many of its would-be inmates as patients. It needs to provide education, job training and housing to much of the population leaving jail.

It needs to arrest and prosecute — or otherwise deal with — people accused of committing petty crimes, if it hopes to interrupt a cycle of offending that undermines neighborhoods and threatens public safety.

How many of those things can the county do at the same time? How big must a replacement jail be? How many people can be successfully diverted? Should diversion take priority over reentry services? Because the answers are unclear, the board must demonstrate to the public how each component of its plan fits into its new vision of criminal justice in Los Angeles County.

County government has many pressing responsibilities, but it remains a democracy and as such requires deliberation and sufficient time for public analysis and input. There is evidence that the county has made a needed course correction, but it's hard to know for certain until the board describes the destination and reveals the road map.

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