An estimated 15% of inmates held in Los Angeles County’s massive jail system require some kind of mental health care. Those prisoners cost more to house, remain in custody longer and are more likely to end up back in jail after being released than other inmates.1
Recently, L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey suggested to the County’s Board of Supervisors that more than 1,000 people with mental illnesses currently incarcerated should be in treatment rather than in jail.2
She made her remarks during a hearing in which the Board voted to approve construction on a $2-billion jail project designed to accommodate roughly 3200 mentally ill inmates. Somewhat belatedly, County Supervisors also voted to study diversion programs, aimed at redirecting people charged with low-level drug possession crimes and the homeless to alternative forms of case resolution and sentencing.
Los Angeles Shouldn’t Spend Money Building Jails to Hold the Mentally Ill
The Board of Supervisors would be wise to investigate building a smaller, less expensive jail facility and investing more in community-based substance abuse and mental health treatment centers. This approach would not only save taxpayers the cost of building and operating an enormous jail complex, but also relieve the number of mentally ill and homeless people cycling in and out of county jail. This in turn would reduce the higher costs associated with treating incarcerated mentally ill people.
The county already has roughly 1,200 people in diversion programs, a number that could grow if not for limitations on funding and resources for alternative programs.
Lacey believes the current system is “simply put, unjust,” and proposes less expensive, alternative methods to dealing with mentally ill and homeless persons other than jailing them.
Lacey was troubled by inmate treatment during a tour of jam-packed mental wards in L.A. County jail last year. She witnessed the chaining of inmates to tables for therapy sessions, causing her to reflect on making changes to the current system. Following her visit, Lacey formed a task force that includes the jail’s commander, court and law enforcement officials, the county mental health department and numerous other public and nonprofit agencies. 3
“You start to wonder,” Lacey asks. “Are we really making a difference, especially when you consider that California has such a high recidivism rate?”4
More Police Training, Less Jailing
Lacey says she wants mandatory training for all police officers so that they learn better how to deal with the mentally ill. She specifically refers to the death of Kelly Thomas in Orange County after an altercation with police officers in Fullerton in 2011 as an example of why more officer training is needed.
Furthermore, Lacey is proposing for additional emergency teams composed of police officers and mental health workers, and pre-arrest diversion for crisis and referral centers. She wants guidelines for prosecutors as to which cases to divert. And she wants to explore funding options for more community-based treatment and housing.
Why Do So Many Mentally Ill People End Up in Jail?
Today, jails often act as warehouses for the mentally ill because government isn’t funding
mental health care as aggressively as it has in the past. Over the past two decades, many states have cut billions from their mental health budgets, shutting down community clinics across the country. As a result, thousands of mentally ill are revolving in and out of the nation’s jails. In many cases, it has sent the mentally ill right back where they started – locked up in facilities that are inadequately equipped to help them.
In fact, Sheriff Lee Baca has stated that Los Angeles County Jail is the largest de facto mental institution in the country.
Jackie Lacey and other proponents of diversionary options are correct in that it is generally more cost effective to treat people with mental illness than it is to incarcerate them. The long-term benefits to the community are also evident. Treatment reduces the likelihood that someone with a mental illness will offend, whereas incarceration alone often exacerbates and perpetuates the problem.
Where Does State Funding Go?
According to the Public Policy Institute of California, the state has made available a total of $1.7 billion for county jail construction. Twenty-one counties have received grants totaling $1.2 billion under Assembly Bill 900 (2007) to construct a total of 10,926 new jail beds. Additional funding under Senate Bill 1022 (2012) provides up to$500 million for the construction of up to 3,800 more jail beds, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office.5
However, state contributions for construction costs account for less than 10% of the total cost of a jail over its lifetime, and the financial burden of these expansions will fall primarily on the counties.6 State legislation does not provide funding for county jail operating costs. Increases in future jail operating costs should drive incentives for counties to seek alternatives to incarceration.
Long-term alternatives that should be explored include, but are not limited to:
- Expansion of drug diversion programming;
- Exempting more nonviolent offenders from incarceration in favor of alternative sentencing;
- Increased funding for community-based, residential treatment facilities;
- Increased funding for vocational and educational training for certain at-risk populations;
- Expanding out-patient substance abuse counseling;
- Public benefits subsidizing low-cost/no-cost medication; and
- Investment in community-based transitional housing programs for the mentally ill and homeless populations.
In the future, state funding for new jail construction should also mandate that counties develop reentry programming, so that inmates held in county facilities for longer periods and particularly those lacking basic resources are not simply released to the streets at the conclusion of their sentences with nowhere to turn.
What Does Wallin & Klarich Think?
Incarcerating the mentally ill is a particularly ineffective and short-sighted means to an end. No one is arguing that crimes they may have committed should go unnoticed. However, in many cases, there would be no crime to punish if we properly housed and treated those at the greatest risk. Long-term treatment is a better approach to reducing recidivism among this population, and costs less.
Political attitudes toward being “tough on crime” need to shift toward a more enlightened “smart on crime” approach. Politicians need to recognize that sentencing alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent crimes is working. Counties need to be incentivized for diverting more of the inmate population from jail as is reasonable and practical.
We can provide for public safety without sacrificing our responsibility to effectively treat those suffering with mental illness.
1. [Los Angeles Times: “The mentally ill in our jails”; http://www.latimes.com/opinion/editorials/la-ed-diversion-mentally-ill-inmates-county-jails-20131015-story.html]↩
2. [ Los Angeles Times: “Jackie Lacey says L.A. County should stop locking up so many people”; http://www.latimes.com/local/la-me-0511-lopez-lacey-20140511-column.html]↩
5. [Public Policy Institute of California: “Key Factors in California’s Jail Construction Needs”; http://www.ppic.org/main/publication_quick.asp?i=1098]↩