More than half the inmates held in the Los Angeles County jail mental health unit could be diverted for community-based treatment instead of being kept in an environment that locks them into a revolving-door experience with the justice system, according to a RAND corporation study.
The study, commissioned by local authorities to assess the need for non-jail clinical and treatment services for mentally ill individuals involved with the justice system, confirmed that “there is mire demand for [such services] than there is capacity,” said a release accompanying the study.
Examining a sample of 500 jail inmates as of June 2019, researchers estimated that more than 3,300 inmates held either in pretrial custody or following trail—or about 61 percents of the total ‘mental health’ population at the time, were “appropriate candidates” for diversion. An additional 7 percent were seen as “potentially appropriate.”
While the researchers cautioned that their study represented only a general estimate of the need, and lacked specific details of the kinds of treatment required, their study is an indicator of the extent of a problem faced by jails across the country.
County jails are now effectively the largest mental health facilities in the U.S.. Research studies have shown that every year about 15 percent of men and 31 percent of women–roughly around 900,000 persons—held in jails have a “serious and persistent mental disorder.”
In Los Angeles County in 2018, on average, about 30 percent of jail inmates on any given day are held in mental health housing units—a 14 percent increase since 2014.
Similar statistics can be found elsewhere in the U.S.
In Texas, the Harris County jail, which serves the metropolitan area of Houston, has been dubbed the “largest mental health facility in Texas,” with over one-quarter of its daily population diagnosed with a mental illness requiring treatment, according to a recent report by Texas Advocates for Justice.
“Individuals with SMI (serious mental illness) often cycle through the justice system, so it is possible that diverting these individuals could prevent those future cycles through the system and help alleviate the overall jail mental health population in a meaningful way,” the RAND study authors said.
There are national efforts underway to help jurisdictions develop treatment options for inmates in need of mental health care. The National Association of Counties, along with the American Psychiatric Association Foundation and the Council of State Governments Justice Center, launched an initiative in 2015 to help connect countries with ‘the tools they need to develop cross-system, data-driven strategies” aimed at reducing the number of incarcerated individuals with mental health issues.
Los Angeles County already has several programs in the planning stage, including replacing the downtown Men’s Central Jail with a “Consolidated Treatment Facility” for inmates needing special care.
“Diversion is stopping the cycle between jail and homelessness,” county Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said in the release.. “Just in the last three years, the [County] Office of Diversion and Reentry has safely diverted over 4,400 people from the county jails to more appropriate settings where they can get treatment, instead of the costly alternative of serving additional time in jail and being released with no supports, too often ending up homeless.”
But he noted that the study “underscores the need to double down on diversion to reach all those who could benefit.“
Researchers and county authorities said the ultimate goal was to divert people in need of treatment before they faced adjudication, and avoid the justice system altogether.
“But even with increases in diversion, there will continue to be a large number of individuals with mental health needs who remain in the jails,” Holliday said.
“It is important that there are services in place to care for people who are incarcerated and provide continuing services once they are released back into the community.”
The report, “Estimating the Size of the Divertible Jail Mental Health Population in Los Angeles County,” can be accessed here.