By Sarah Favot
August 4, 2015

Link: http://www.sgvtribune.com/government-and-politics/20150804/la-county-supervisors-discuss-treatment-of-mentally-ill-inmates-in-county-jails

Thousands of mentally ill inmates will require hundreds more beds in the county’s jail system unless strong diversion actions are taken, a report commissioned by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors found.

The supervisors reviewed the consultant’s report that projects how many beds are required in a new jail facility to treat the county’s inmates who are mentally ill.

By 2025, 4,600 to 5,060 beds will be needed in the new facility for inmates who require medical and mental health care if the county pursues its current diversion and community treatment initiatives.

If the county does not dedicate those resources, 6,773 beds will be needed to house a mentally stressed population by 2025, the consultants from Health Management Associates projected.

Drastic measures are needed to avoid violating the civil rights of inmates, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said.

“The current state of the jails in the County of Los Angeles strikes a note of unconstitutionality and a violation of civil rights,” Ridley-Thomas said. “To the extent that this the case, the status quo cannot be and will not be tolerated. 

Therefore, what is before us is how to uphold public safety and make sure those who require incarceration are incarcerated without the violation of their rights.”

Finding other facilities outside of the jails to house mentally ill inmates could open space to treat high-risk inmates with substance abuse issues, Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald said.

Based on county population projections and sentencing trends, the consultants estimated that the total jail population will grow to more than 21,000 by 2025. There are about 17,900 inmates currently within the county’s eight jail facilities, and about 3,500 of those inmates have some form of mental illness.

The percentage of inmates who require medical and mental health treatment is projected to grow from about 20 percent in 2015 to about 34 percent in 2035, the consultants said.

The supervisors will likely vote on the jail plan next week since the construction of the proposed jail is tied to the construction of a new women’s jail at Mira Loma Detention Center. The county is applying for a $100 million state grant for the Mira Loma Detention Center plan, which has an Aug. 17 deadline, according to the county interim CEO.

Despite the pressing need seen by the board, activists continued to call for a smaller jail facility.

Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the ACLU, criticized the consultant’s projections, saying they were based on flawed data from 2010 to 2015. Eliasberg said that growth of the number of mentally ill inmates can be attributed to improved screening for mental illness among inmates.

“You need a smaller facility than this grossly flawed projection gives you,” Eliasberg said.

Supervisors heard a report from L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey on recommendations to divert thousands of mentally-ill inmates from the county’s jails.

Lacey and a task force studied a diversion plan for 15 months. She called it a comprehensive, first-of-its-kind report on diversion of mentally ill inmates in the county. 

The plan includes training for law enforcement officers to work with the mentally ill, the addition of urgent care centers where people can be admitted who are in crisis rather than jails or emergency rooms, and additional housing and treatment centers.

“While there may be less mentally ill people who are in the jail, that should not be the driving purpose behind this plan,” Lacey said. “It is my belief... that we ought to do this because it is simply the right thing to do.”

L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell said he is committed to training all of his deputies in crisis intervention, which will take about six years.

“We simply cannot cope with the complex population that often could be better served in different settings where more effective and efficient strategies would be more humane and also better enhance public safety,” McDonnell said.

Lacey said the plan would be long term and may take a decade to implement. The supervisors have budgeted $40 million this year for mental health diversion programs.

Ridley-Thomas said the board should take action on the district attorney’s recommendations.

“We need to come forth with what is essentially an implementation plan,” Ridley-Thomas said. “It can and will emerge in relatively short order.”

The projections for the new county jail facility do not take into account Lacey’s diversion plan.

In other business, the supervisors agreed to a $5 million settlement with the family of John Winkler, an aspiring television producer, who was killed by sheriff’s deputies in West Hollywood after the deputies mistook Winkler for a suspect with a knife. 

The federal lawsuit alleged wrongful death, excessive use of force and civil rights violations. The deputies claimed their actions were reasonable.