Crime & Justice

Critics say overhaul of LA jails not enough

Thousands of mentally ill people are locked up in this downtown LA jail on any given day.
Thousands of mentally ill people are locked up in this downtown LA jail on any given day.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

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As Los Angeles County promises major changes inside its sprawling and troubled jail system, advocates for the mentally ill say leaders are leaving out a key component for successful reform.

Under federally imposed orders approved by a judge this summer, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department must improve mental health treatment inside the jails. In addition, the department must devise discharge plans for inmates that could include a referral to a social worker or prescription for medications.

But advocates say that's where many former inmates fall off their treatment plan and end up back in crisis, and often, back in jail.

“We ought to be allowing them to exit jail with at least a reasonable chance that they won’t be back any time soon," said UCLA Law Professor Gary Blasi, an attorney with Public Counsel, which is suing to have a say in the court-imposed reforms. 

He said inmates need a “warm hand-off” from jailer to social worker because they often lack the capacity to navigate a complicated web of county mental health facilities and services.

“That means that you have a human being in one system who connects with another human being in another system,” Blasi said.  “They assume responsibility for seeing that the person doesn’t get dropped in the gap between the bureaucracies.”

Public Counsel YouTube video

Thousands of mentally ill inmates are released from L.A. County jails every year. The population of inmates with serious mental health conditions has continued to grow. 

In August, after years of monitoring conditions, the U.S. Department of Justice reached an agreement with the sheriff's department to massively overhaul how such inmates are treated while in jail. 

Now, Public Counsel, representing a group of former inmates, is going to court to "intervene" in the case and alter the settlement agreement.

The current agreement “creates practices that will continue to cycle the mentally ill between Skid Row and the County Jails, depriving them of necessary medical and psychiatric services,” according to a Public Counsel statement. 

County officials were not immediately available for comment. When they announced reforms last month, county and federal officials called them “historic.”

The provisions in the settlement agreement will “usher in a new era” for treatment of mentally ill inmates in the county’s jail system, said U.S. Attorney Eileen Decker.

Blasi acknowledged the improvements in care for inmates could be significant. But he called the plan for inmates on their way out “ill-conceived” and in violation of the American with Disabilities Act because it fails to provide adequate care to mentally ill people.

Public counsel also argues the reforms fail to cover key mental health disorders like dementia and personality disorders, even though they can be more disabling than schizophrenia, said Blasi.

Many of the mentally ill inmates inside L.A. County jails committed minor crimes and never should have been arrested in the first – or at least should have gone to a hospital instead of jail, said Blasi.

That’s a view shared by District Attorney Jackie Lacey, who released a plan in July to divert more people from jail.

Lacey recommended mental health training for all law enforcement officers in the county, as well as steps for building up a network of treatment options for lower level offenders who don't necessarily belong in jail.