By Rina Palta
April 10, 2015

Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell wants to hire 77 employees to improve conditions for the mentally ill in jails to avoid a court battle with the U.S. Department of Justice.

McDonnell sent a letter to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors last week, saying the changes are necessary to meet anticipated requirements in an imminent agreement with the DOJ to avoid court action.

The plan - which comes with a $2.1 million price tag - calls for a new "bureau" to oversee the quality of mental health services in the jails and keep tabs on any requirements that come out of a deal with the DOJ.

The Board of Supervisors is slated to discuss the proposal Tuesday. The funding request will need the board's approval.

Last June, the DOJ sent a letter to the sheriff's department finding unconstitutional conditions in the jails, and seeking "corrective action in the form of a court-enforceable agreement" on improving mental health care.

Investigators cited a sub-par suicide prevention plan, inadequate space for therapy sessions, and "dimly lit, vermin-infested, noisy, unsanitary, cramped and crowed" conditions in the cells where the mentally ill are kept.

"Our lawyers have been hammering away and we hope to be able to present a settlement to the Board of Supervisors and the courts within the next couple of months," Chief David Fender of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department told KPCC.

Fender said a number of factors led to the jails getting to the point where these changes are needed - predominantly, overcrowding.

Even though Proposition 47, which reduced some felonies to misdemeanors, has helped reduce the number of people in jail, the mentally ill population has continued to climb, he said. 

"This system is just bulging at the seams," he said. "On top of that you have the mental health population that's just exploded on us." 

The money would come from the county's provisional funds, which are used to finance things that can't wait for the new budget cycle. 

The funds would pay for two employees to run a tracking system for inmate complaints, five to provide trainings to jail staff, 11 to review and audit use of force complaints, six to investigate inmate deaths, and 10 to generally assist with inmates in mental health crisis who are not in a mental health unit.

McDonnell's letter said there are no deputies on staff to evaluate inmates for mental health issues in the women's Century Regional Detention Center in Lynwood and there are few at Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic.

"These are individuals who team up with psychologists and basically go around and look for people who are distressed, people who are in need of counseling, but who haven't thought to ask for help," Fender said.

A number of janitors would also be hired to help keep cells clean for inmates unable to do their own housekeeping.

The request comes on top of $8.1 the board gave the department to help with jail improvements earlier this year.

L.A.'s jails have been under federal scrutiny since 2002, when the county reached an agreement allowing DOJ staff to monitor conditions for mentally ill inmates.

McDonnell said the expansion of would also help it meet terms of an early settlement reached with the ACLU of Southern California on use of force in the jails.

LA jails seek to expand mental health staff to avoid DOJ lawsuit [KPCC]