How L.A. Court Handles Mentally-Disturbed Defendants Amid Service Shortage


Armies of mentally disturbed defendants march through The Airport Courthouse, a branch of the Los Angeles County Superior Court south of Los Angeles International Airport, daily, says Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez. “I would bet the Airport Court has more mentally ill people than anywhere else,” said Ellie Schneir, a public defender who handles arraignments before Judge Keith Schwartz. There’s a shameful shortage of sensible, humane, cost-effective services that would divert people into recovery rather than into jail, says Lopez.

“My biggest gripe with the system is why are we spending $50,000 a year to jail somebody when we could be spending $5,000 [ ] to put them in a treatment program,” said Lynn Meltzer Brewer, a public defender. Part of the problem is that mental illness is routinely criminalized. “I have a reputation as being very tough on sentencing on violent stuff, but I’m practical,” Schwartz said. “I’ve been in this court now for seven or eight years and I’ve seen what we need to do. We need to help the sheriff with overcrowding and we need to help the prisons. With nonviolent, non-serious people we can help, we need to divert them from being in jail to being in a program that can change their behavior.” Such programs are hard to come by.

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