Los Angeles County Weighs Alternatives to Jail for Mentally Troubled

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Graphic notetaking image developed at the ATI Community Engagement Workshop led by Community Coalition in South Los Angeles. Image developed by Graphic Footprints and live artist Dayna Bowers. Courtesy WitnessLA

During the 1960s, under then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, California decided to deinstitutionalize most of the state residents who were suffering from some kind of mental or emotional illness.

For too many years, struggling Californians had been institutionalized wrongly, or for too long, or against their will, or without competent treatment, or all of the above.

The 1967 passage of the Lanterman-Petris-Short (LPS) Act ended most forms of lengthy forced commitment for people with mental illnesses, and established the right to due process in nearly all cases before commitment could take place.

This new legislation served to empty out most of the state’s mental hospitals.

Coincidentally, it also saved a lot from the state’s budget.

The idea was that most of those who needed treatment would go to community facilities, which sounded good in theory. But, with rare exceptions, the community facilities never materialized.  So instead, an ever-growing number of people struggled on their own, or with overwhelmed and ill-equipped families.  Many self-medicated, became homeless, and sometimes crossed the legal line—often repeatedly—as an artifact of their illness and trauma.

It didn’t help that, as time went on, co-incidental to this anti-institutional movement was the rise of the drug war, followed by the law-and-order period of the 1980s and the 1990s, where mandatory minimums and new sentencing “enhancements” became the fashion.

The result was overfilled prisons and jails that also served, by default, as treatment facilities — famously turning Los Angeles County’s jail system into the nation’s largest mental institution.

Moment of Consensus

Now, according to a remarkable new report, after decades of having a “community safety strategy that is organized around police and punishment,” Los Angeles County has reached a unique moment of consensus that a new approach is needed.

Wherever one stands politically on crime and justice, it is undeniably true that our jails are over-filled with people struggling with homelessness, poverty, mental illness and addiction.

These are human conditions that the justice system is not equipped to deal with well, the report points out. These are also not conditions that law enforcement is best suited to deal with either, although we unfairly have continued to drop the responsibility in the laps of our police and sheriff’s departments.

The result has been, according to the new report, “far too many people cycling in and out of jail” instead of getting the support and healing they need to lead healthy and productive lives.

la jail

Photo by Rev. Dr. Disney Wizard via Flickr

With all of the above in mind, a little over a year ago, on February 12, 2019, the LA County Board of Supervisors instructed the Office of the CEO to create the public-private county workgroup that would come to be called Alternatives to Incarceration (ATI).

This 25-member ATI Working Group was to be charged with developing a “road map,” together with an “action-oriented framework and implementation plan,” to create a countywide system that would be designed to provide care and services first, and to use jail as the last resort.

Now, a little over a year later, the ATI group is back with a 98-page final report that includes 114 recommendations, organized under five “foundational” strategies, and which was officially accepted by the LA County Board of supervisors on Tuesday, March 10.

Also on Tuesday, and perhaps more importantly, the board voted on a new motion authored by Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Mark Ridley-Thomas, which — after adopting the ATI’s five main strategies — asks the CEO to take the initial steps of instituting a larger plan that is designed to make the ATI’s recommendations a reality, and thus begin to build a countywide system of “alternatives to incarceration.”

A second unanimously passed motion co-authored by Supervisors Hilda Solis and Janice Hahn that added to and further refined what the CEO is being asked to do to get the ATI ball rolling.

Celeste Fremon is editor of WitnessLA . This is a slightly condensed version of an article reprinted with permission from the California Justice Report, a weekly roundup of news and views from California and beyond, published by WitnessLA. Read the full article here.

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