A New Day: Our County’s Opportunity to Create a Comprehensive Plan
for Addressing the Needs of the Mentally Ill
August 3, 2015

Over the past three decades I have observed the increasingly complex challenges faced by law enforcement, as well as our entire community, as we seek to address the needs of the growing population who struggle with mental illness.  Too often, we have used our criminal justice system and our jails as a default placement for those who can, instead, be safely and more effectively treated in our community. And for those who do need to be separated from society, we have not invested in jail facilities that can effectively provide therapeutic care for the thousands of inmates in our County who need and deserve mental health treatment.

This week our County leaders will have the opportunity to change this status quo and create a new paradigm. I applaud Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey for her leadership in bringing together an Advisory Group of County leaders, justice system officials, mental health experts and community voices to develop a comprehensive plan for how all parts of our justice system can better address the challenges and concerns of those suffering from mental illness.

The collaborative and thoughtful work of the Mental Health Advisory Group – to be presented to the Board of Supervisors on August 4th -- underscores the need for new approaches that can enable us, whenever possible, to safely divert low level offenders who might otherwise end up in our jail system due to mental illness. Our jails simply are not the best place for low level offenders who often would be better served by community-based treatment options that can address the underlying problems, while still maintaining community safety.

As the Advisory Group report recognized, we need to invest in the development and implementation of Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) – a nationally recognized best practice that provides law enforcement, often the first responders to those in crisis, with the tools to deescalate and diffuse inherently tense situations that can pose a danger to all concerned. As importantly, we need to support the expansion of mental evaluation teams (MET) that enable trained interdisciplinary specialists to respond to locations throughout the County and attend to the needs of individuals who may be better off treated outside our justice system. Finally, we need to fund and create an effective network of treatment programs and resource centers for the mentally ill that will provide them with the support, compassion and services they need in our community rather than in our jails.

Even with more effective prevention-oriented and diversion strategies, the Advisory Group report aptly notes that there will always be a need for mental health treatment in our jails. Indeed, on any given day our Los Angeles County jails house and treat an average of 3500 to 4000 inmates with mentally illness – more than the number of patients managed in the entire California State Hospital system. Yet our jails are neither staffed nor designed for the therapeutic care of those in our custody. While we develop strategies to better treat low level offenders suffering from mental illness in our community, we must simultaneously develop and invest in more appropriate and effective treatment and housing for the mentally ill who come into our jails and will eventually return to our streets and neighborhoods.   

I look forward to working with the Board of Supervisors, our District Attorney and other Los Angeles County leaders to achieve a safer, smarter and more humane approach to the tremendous challenges facing individuals in our community suffering from mental illness. We have a timely opportunity to break the cycle of recidivism and better address the needs of the many friends, families and neighbors in our County who struggle with mental illness, rather than simply “arresting” our way out of these complex issues. Embracing these new approaches is not simply the right thing to do, and it is not simply the fiscally prudent approach, but it will also help us build healthier and safer communities in the long run.