Frank Papini

LA County District Attorney Jackie Lacey with members of the San Fernando Police Department.

Too many people with a mental illness are caught up in the Los Angeles county criminal justice system, and there are better ways to provide needed treatment and still protect the public by means other than jail, Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey said.

It’s one reason, Lacey contends, that “we can be far more effective if we commit to fully support the aggressive expansion” of alternative sentencing programs, and fully fund all available housing options.

“The use of jail as a massive mental health ward is inefficient, ineffective and, in many cases, inhumane,” Lacey said.

“There’s simply a moral question here. Are we punishing people for simply being sick?”

Speaking at the San Fernando Police Advisory Council luncheon on Monday, March 21, Lacey — the first female and African American elected county district attorney since the office was created in 1850 — said offering nonviolent offenders “a chance to change their lives and avoid incarceration has proven successful. It’s reducing recidivism rates, saving taxpayer dollars, and reserving jail beds for dangerous criminals.”

Lacey, who at one time was a prosecutor at the San Fernando Courthouse, noted that defendants who have a mental illness “often serve more time behind bars” than they would have if they had been healthy, and committed the same crime. “And once their criminal case is complete, people with mental illness are often dumped back into the streets and more than 70 percent are re-arrested again.”

Many never seem to escape the streets without being arrested. According the Institute for the Study of Homelessness and Poverty at the Weingart Center, an estimated 254,000 men, women and children in Los Angeles county are homeless during some part of the year, and approximately 82,000 are homeless on any given night. About 25 percent of them are mentally ill.

The crimes could be as minor as urinating in public. But a jail cell may be the only place to put them.

In 2014, Los Angeles county officials initiated an alternative sentencing program designed to place low-level mentally ill offenders into an 18-month treatment program, with the intent to reduce jail overcrowding and reduce the number mentally ill defendants repeatedly incarcerated.

The program, which includes transitional housing and medical services, began in Van Nuys.

Those who finish the program, as well as any court-ordered probation, would have their pending criminal charges cleared from their records.

Similar alternative sentencing programs in New York and Florida for mentally ill offenders have reported recidivism rates of offenders being as low as 20 percent.

Other specific alternative sentencing programs in Los Angeles county for women and veterans who had committed low-level offenses have proven successful in reducing the rates of repeat offenders, and lowering the amount of taxpayer dollars spent on housing inmates. The county’s Second Chance Women’s Re-Entry Court was created in 2007, the Veterans Court (for those with nonviolent felony cases and no previous convictions) in 2010.

In both instances, she said, recidivism rates for women and vets who completed the programs have been as low as 20 percent, and the savings to taxpayers as much as $10 million.

It was the success of those programs that made Lacey — who leads the Criminal Justice Mental Health Task Force, which includes prosecutors and  defense attorneys, judges, law enforcement personnel, firefighters, paramedics, probation officials, mental health and health service professionals, and groups such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the Inner City Law Center — seek alternative methods for adjudicating cases of low-level offenders with a mental illness. That included a specific courthouse to hear those cases.

“LA County Jail has as many as 20,000 inmates at any one time,” Lacey said. “And approximately 4,000 of them have a mental illness, making the jail the nation’s largest mental health institution. That population has nearly doubled since 2011.”

 As a result, Lacey said, the county Sheriff’s Department “employs more full time psychiatrists than Harbor-UCLA Medical Center,” the county’s second largest public hospital. “And the price tag continues to grow. Housing an inmate with a mental illness costs triple that of other inmates. Most require medication, and extra security.”

This kind of program is riskier than those for women and “it certainly doesn’t have the political appeal” that a Veteran’s Court has, Lacey said. But, she said, people with a mental illness are often stigmatized, and blamed for their condition.

“This is wrong,” Lacey said. “A person with a disorder that affects their life is no more responsible being in their condition than anyone who has cancer.”

There is one important stipulation, among others, to qualify for the program, Lacey said. The crimes must be nonviolent offenses.

“If you hurt others, no matter what your mental state, the criminal justice system must protect the public,” she said. “But in too many instances, jail is the readily available option.

“We have an incredible opportunity. There is widespread interest in helping those with a mental illness. And we in the criminal justice system are trying to do our part.”