By City News Service
November 23, 2015
LOS ANGELES — Attorneys for mentally ill and transient former county jail prisoners are expected to argue before a judge today that emotionally disabled inmates should not be discharged in the middle of the night without the benefit of support services.
The action filed in Los Angeles federal court seeks to modify some provisions of a recent settlement between the county and the U.S. Justice Department over treatment of mentally ill jail inmates.
A judge heard arguments Monday but issued no ruling on a motion brought by attorneys for mentally ill and transient former county jail prisoners asking to intervene in a federal court case which the U.S. Department of Justice recently settled with Los Angeles County.
The six men and two women named in the motion seek to modify the August settlement by ensuring that all mentally ill inmates be given pre-discharge planning, including a referral to a social worker or prescription for medications, before they are set free.
The proposed intervenors contend that, as it now stands, the class of people eligible for pre-release planning is limited to those who have a “serious mental illness” as defined by the settlement and have been kept behind bars for more than seven days.
County attorneys argued that the eight proposed intervenors lack standing because they’re not currently in jail, and warned that the proposed changes are too broad and could ultimately nullify the agreement. In addition, the county argued that the intervenors are challenging a program that hasn’t taken even yet taken effect.
U.S. District Judge Dean Pregerson said it made the most sense to deal with the issue immediately in order to minimize any future civil rights lawsuits.
The judge said the parties should work out any settlement modifications that are warranted, particularly involving mentally ill inmates.
Such inmates represent “this community’s most urgent problem,” Pregerson said.
Mark Rosenbaum, an attorney with Public Counsel, a Los Angeles pro bono law firm that helped file the former inmates’ motion, said the filing “is about homelessness prevention.”
“By failing to provide needed assistance to the mentally disabled when they are released from jail, the county sends mentally disabled homeless people back to the streets of Skid Row and exacerbates the expensive Skid Row-to-jail cycle -- the cycle of arrest, release and re-arrest of mentally disabled individuals,” he said.
“This is a tragedy for these individuals and their families and costs taxpayers millions of dollars each year,” he said. “The county’s jail discharge planning policy is a homelessness manufacturing machine.”
The former inmates contend that current requirements fail to adequately address the needs of mentally disabled prisoners under the American with Disabilities Act when inmates are released from custody by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies.
A sheriff’s spokesman said policy prohibits discussion of pending litigation.
Rosenbaum told Pregerson that the current discharge policy depends on a system of referrals that many mentally disabled people are not capable of navigating, and does not require any verification that the services at the end of the referrals are in fact available to that person.
As a result, mentally disabled people cannot access available services, or they expend precious energy trying connect with services that are not available to them, he said.
Giving newly discharged mentally challenged jail inmates frequently out-of-date lists of referrals “is like giving them a map of Mount Everest,” Rosenbaum said. “They don’t have the capacity to get there.”
Los Angeles County jails have frequently been referred to as the largest de facto mental health facility in the country. On any given day, the region’s jails house and treat an average of 3,500 to 4,000 mentally ill inmates -- more than the number of patients managed in the entire California State Hospital system, according to Sheriff Jim McDonnell.
Royal Williams, 44, has been homeless for 20 years and suffers from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and depression.
“When I was arrested, I was forced to leave my personal possessions on the sidewalk, including all my medications, legal documents, and my backpack,” he said. “When I was released, I was given a 30-day prescription for (the anti-psychotic medication) Risperdal, which I couldn’t fill because I had no money and didn’t know there were free pharmacies, and three pieces of paper listing maybe 50 places for housing, mental health care and drug and alcohol treatment,” he said.
“I didn’t know which ones would be good for me,” Williams said. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a place where I could figure out who to call or where to go, so I threw the lists away.”
Alisa Hartz, a Public Counsel attorney, said the transition point from custody back to society “is a very vulnerable moment, and that moment is an opportunity to connect mentally disabled people with the services that will keep them out of jail and off the streets.”
“As a society, we must confront the hard truths about how the jails’ practice of discharging mentally disabled people with no resources increases homelessness on Skid Row and keeps the jails full of people who mainly need mental health treatment,” she said.