It should come as no surprise that Los Angeles County's treatment of mentally ill jail inmates falls so short of acceptable standards that the U.S. Department of Justice is seeking federal court oversight. County officials did too little for too long to correct egregious problems. Recent efforts to improve jail management and to identify and better serve mentally ill and suicidal inmates came too late.
County leaders may be tempted to argue that Friday's notice from the Justice Department shows that they were right to move ahead with a plan to raze the decrepit and rat-infested Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles and to build a more modern and humane facility in which mentally ill inmates would be better treated.
A better lesson would be that for nearly two decades, the county has moved at an unnecessarily glacial pace in responding to long-standing concerns about poor treatment of incarcerated people who more properly should have been treated as patients in medical and mental health treatment facilities. In their report to the county Friday, federal officials cited 15 suicides in the jails in less than 30 months, called conditions for the mentally ill "deplorable" and described jail cells as "dimly lit, vermin-infested, noisy, unsanitary, cramped and crowded."
The Justice Department began issuing recommendations to Los Angeles on handling mentally ill inmates in 1996. It entered into an agreement with the Sheriff's Department to put many of those recommendations in place in 2002. A commission examining conditions in the jails again criticized the county and issued another list of recommendations in 2012. The Justice Department put the county on notice in September 2013 that it was examining the jails for patterns and practices of civil rights violations against inmates — and that it would gauge whether there had been sufficient improvements in mental health care in the jails.
An agreement under which the county relinquishes some of its authority over jail management and mental health services could be costly and would bring no guarantee of improvement. But when compared with the other options — more delay, more mistreatment of patients as inmates, more lawsuits and too little progress — it may be the best option left.