By Sarah Favot
August 11, 2015
Described as a “seismic shift” in the county’s approach to incarceration, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday voted to divert at least 1,000 low-level mentally ill inmates from the jails.
A divided board also moved forward on construction of a new downtown jail that will house 3,885 inmates who require mental health and substance abuse services.
The move to divert mentally ill inmates comes just one week after the county reached a settlement with the federal government that requires a federal judge to monitor the treatment of mentally ill inmates in the county’s jails.
In a split decision, the board authorized contractors to continue construction of a Consolidated Correctional Treatment Facility that would replace Men’s Central Jail, which the supervisors called an “abomination,” with a reduced number of beds than previously considered. The facility will house the nearly 1 in 5 inmates in the county jail system who require mental health care. The board also authorized the continued construction of a new women’s facility at Mira Loma Correctional Facility in Lancaster.
The supervisors halted the $2 billion construction project in June for reconsideration of the number of beds that would be required in the mental health and substance abuse treatment jail facility. The original plan approved last year by the board would have created 4,885 beds. Each of the supervisors Tuesday proposed a different number of beds for the facility, but the board ultimately reached a compromise.
Michael Antonovich wanted 4,600 beds in the facility, while Hilda Solis proposed 3,243 beds. Sheila Kuehl’s plan for 3,885 beds was approved with Antonovich and Mark Ridley-Thomas’ support. Don Knabe voted against the plan and Solis abstained. Knabe was the lone vote against the diversion plan.
“This is an historic attempt by this county to do something different, to turn around a very unwieldy and huge ship that has primarily been about incarceration, incarceration, incarceration, and it hasn’t worked,” Kuehl said.
The board was under a deadline to resume construction of the jail projects so that the county would be eligible for a $100 million state grant for the construction of the Mira Loma facility.
The sheriff wanted 4,860 beds in the facility because other jails in the system are overcrowded, said Sheriff’s Department Executive Officer Neal Tyler, who spoke for Sheriff Jim McDonnell at the meeting.
“He’s trying to make sure that we have the flexibility going into a period of time two decades hence to change our decision-making to some extent without spending more money later or incurring the risk of litigation because of unconstitutional jailing,” Tyler said.
Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald, who oversees the jails, said there will not be enough space for all of the mentally ill inmates in a facility with 3,900 beds.
McDonnell told the supervisors last week he also supports diversion for mentally ill inmates who are low-level offenders and non-violent.
The board allocated about $120 million through various funding mechanisms to launch the diversion program and set aside about $10 million annually to run it.
Forty percent of the funds will be used for housing and about half will be used for diversion and anti-recidivism programs.
“We know diversion is the right thing to do, and to do so with taxpayer dollars in a prudent and effective way,” Ridley-Thomas said. “We declare it is a superior alternative to incarceration.”
The vote on the jail plan was tacked on to the motion by Ridley-Thomas and Kuehl on jail diversion.
Advocates and American Civil Liberties Union legal director Peter Eliasberg praised the diversion program but criticized the board for attaching the motion on the jail construction plan to the jail diversion plan.
“These motions are inconsistent with the Brown Act,” Eliasberg said. “They will invite a lawsuit.”
The diversion plan creates an Office of Diversion and Re-entry within the Department of Health Services that would oversee diversion of inmates who are mentally ill, have substance abuse issues and who are at risk of becoming homeless once they are released from jail.
The action comes one week after L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey unveiled a plan to divert thousands of low-level mentally ill offenders to community-based treatment. Lacey said her plan would take about a decade to fully implement.
“On behalf of the Criminal Justice Mental Health Task Force, a day like today is something that many of us have been dreaming of in terms of people acknowledging that the old way of doing things simply isn’t working and isn’t just,” Lacey said.