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New Los Angeles Program Working To Divert Mentally Ill, Homeless From Jail

LOS ANGELES — Court. Jail. Homelessness. Repeat.

That cycle so familiar to many Californians with mental illnesses may soon be interrupted thanks to the new Third District Diversion and Alternative Sentencing Program in Los Angeles County.

Designed for adults who are chronically homeless, seriously mentally ill, and who commit specific misdemeanor and low-level felony crimes, the demonstration project could help reduce recidivism by as much as two-thirds, Third District Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said.

Similar diversion programs have produced promising results in other metropolitan areas — Bexar County (San Antonio), Texas and Miami-Dade County in Florida, for example — fueling hopes for change here, according to L.A. program supporters.

“Clearly, treating mental illness in jail does not produce the best results,” Yaroslavsky said. “At present we put offenders into the mental health unit of the jail — it’s the largest mental health facility in the state. We provide mental health treatment and custodial care for approximately 3,500 people each day.”

Various county government officials, as well as judges and attorneys, signed a 38-page memorandum of understanding to outline the program on Sept. 14.

“We have involved all the agencies in the community that intersect around this problem, and we’ve spelled out all their responsibilities,” Yaroslavsky said.

Program Stems From Public Safety Act

The Public Safety Realignment Act (AB 109) — aimed at reducing crowding in state prisons — paved the way for the program. Implemented in 2011, the act shifts responsibility from the state to county level for supervising people convicted of certain crimes.

“A beneficial aspect of AB 109 realignment is an effort by many participants in the criminal justice system to examine how we do things, and to ask if there’s a subset of people who can be better served outside of prison. Now various departments talk to each other that didn’t do so beforehand. The bill softened the beachhead for this entire effort,” L.A. Assistant District Attorney William Hodgman said.

An ad hoc working group of Los Angeles area leaders formed late last year to investigate jail diversion programs.

In April, Hodgman and other county officials visited Bexar County in Texas to study the finer points of that program. In May, nearly 125 participants attended a conference at the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law to share insights and identify gaps in the local criminal justice system. Facilitators also attended from SAMHSA’s Gains Center for Behavioral Health and Justice Transformation, and they are currently preparing to present an executive summary with recommendations to the L.A. Board of Supervisors in mid-November.

L.A. County’s Version of Diversion

L.A.’s program currently has a budget of more than $750,000, made up of funds from the county, state and federal government. Yaroslavsky said he supports using the $20 million currently in reserve that has been committed and approved by the Board of Supervisors but hasn’t yet been appropriated.

The program will divert adults from the traditional fines, probation and incarceration typically imposed, and instead place them on a path to secure permanent, supportive housing and treatment, the MOU says.

Up to 50 adults — including as many as 20 U.S. military veterans — who elect to participate in the program will be released to San Fernando Valley Community Mental Health Center. The diversion program provides bridge and permanent supportive housing, health and mental health care, group and individual treatment and support, and employment and vocational services, said Yaroslavsky.

Misdemeanor offenders will receive a post-filing of criminal charges option and the pre-plea diversion program. Once they’ve completed the 90-day program, they can continue to earn permanent, supportive housing, as well as have charges against them dismissed. For felons who successfully complete the program, the court will consider whether to terminate probation early and or dismiss the case. The program for felons runs at least 18 months, and begins with a court order of 36 months of formal probation.

At the center, Program Manager Katie Phillips counted three referrals so far, two of which were accepted while the third was “not appropriate.”

A Look at Texas’ Program

Bexar County’s program has diverted approximately 20,000 people a year from jail since its 2002 inception, with an impressive savings of nearly $50 million over the last five years.

“Now we keep offenders out of the vicious revolving door,” Leon Evans, CEO of San Antonio’s Center for Health Care Services, said. “We look at interventions that improve the safety net, save taxpayer dollars and help restore people.”

Evans said approximately 70% of offenders who have completed Bexar County’s program remained alcohol- or drug-free after a year.

Cutting Jail Time and Costs

The Los Angeles program comes amid the county’s efforts to address its jail system, particularly problems with health care.

In June, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a 36-page statement and accompanying two-page letter criticizing the county for deplorable and unconstitutional jail conditions, and for inadequate suicide prevention practices, as it sought federal court oversight. DOJ acknowledged that “the delivery of mental health services in the corrections environment is difficult and presents unique challenges.”

On Oct. 2, the Los Angeles Times reported that federal officials, who have kept tabs on county jails for 12 years, rejected Los Angeles County’s proposal to maintain control over its jails and will move forward with a consent decree to address problems with mental health care.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the status of the decree.

“By every measure of public policy, I’d give what the county (Los Angeles) had been doing an ‘F’ grade,” said Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. “This is a very positive step. What I hope is that it is not just a pilot program that ends up being a feel-good measure. It would be criminal if the county doesn’t take this pilot and build upon it county-wide for every criminal court.”

“We can, and should, do something, about this population of chronically homeless and seriously mentally ill,” said presiding judge David Wesley of L.A. County Superior Court, one of the officials who signed the memorandum of understanding. “The good news about mental illness is that recovery is possible in most cases with proper treatment, and treatment can be a safer and more effective outcome than incarceration. It is hoped that this program will provide the services necessary to successfully assist the mentally ill and keep them out of the criminal justice system,” Wesley said.

Yaroslavsky anticipates that the diversion program will expand. He thinks the MOU can be used in any L.A. county courthouse “and scaled up with relative ease when the board of supervisors is ready. All we needed was the political will to do it and the money — and this is undeniably cheaper than incarceration. I’m confident it’s going to work.”

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