July 03, 2014
City News Service
Civil rights advocates released a report July 1, urging Los Angeles County officials to create diversion programs for mentally ill jail inmates charged with non-violent offenses. The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and the Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law jointly unveiled “A Way Forward,” saying its recommendations would save money, improve public safety by reducing the number of repeat offenders and reduce jail overcrowding. An estimated 3,200 inmates diagnosed with severe mental illness are jailed in Los Angeles County, making it the nation's largest psychiatric institution, according to the report.
The U.S. Justice Department, in a report released June 6, charged that the Los Angeles County jail system violates the constitutional rights of inmates, falls short in its suicide-prevention programs and fails to provide adequate mental health treatment. According to the federal report, there were 15 inmate suicides in just over two years in county jails, and some of them may have been avoided if adequate prevention techniques were in place. Inmates with mental illness are more likely to suffer abuse from other inmates or jail guards. Mentally ill inmates are also much more likely to commit more crimes once released, according to today’s ACLU/Bazelon report.
“Diversion programs have proven successful in Seattle, San Antonio and Miami-Dade County,” said Peter Eliasberg, legal director for the ACLU of Southern California.
“Implementing these programs would be a substantial savings to the county, and it would also reduce recidivism and increase the quality of life for people who have mental illness.”
In Los Angeles County, the annual cost of housing an inmate is about $38,000 and the cost of housing and treating a mentally ill inmate is about $63,000, the report estimates. A spot in a diversion program with supervision and permanent supportive housing is calculated at about $21,000 per year.
“Everyone loses when we criminalize a person with a mental illness,” said Ira Burnim, legal director at the Bazelon Center.
“Diversion programs that ensure access to Assertive Community Treatment, supportive housing and other evidence-based community treatment options are win-win. They result in better treatment outcomes, they save money and they are simply the right thing to do.”
Sheriff’s officials have said that the DOJ report “mischaracterizes and significantly understates” efforts made by the department to improve suicide prevention and mental health programs. Reaction to the recent recommendations by the ACLU of Southern California was not immediately available.