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Move 7,000 mentally ill inmates from jail to treatment centers, say LA County Supervisors

The mentally ill make up about 50% of the entire inmate population of roughly 15,000 people in county jails

By Steve Scauzillo
The Whittier Daily News, Calif.

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, Sept. 27 asked for a report on how to move more than 7,000 inmates with mental health conditions out of county jails and into secure facilities designed exclusively for treatment.

At the first open meeting held at the Hall of Administration in downtown Los Angeles since the start of the pandemic, the board allowed only 100 members of the public to attend at a time.

The agenda drew opponents and supporters of the board’s plan to build new facilities, or contract out, to treat those designated as having a mental illness. The mentally ill make up about 50% of the entire inmate population of roughly 15,000 people in county jails.

In the last decade, the population of incarcerated people in L.A. County with mental health needs has increased more than 80%, the motion stated, making the Twin Towers jail “the largest de facto mental health facility in the nation,” the county reported.

The first priority is to provide mental health beds to the 1,601 inmates with debilitating mental illnesses that could pose a danger to themselves or others. The proposal would involve moving those inmates out of the Twin Towers Correctional Facility and other county jails.

The board motion called for a report on how to proceed in three months, asking for “a holistic plan to develop secured, non-correctional mental health care facilities.”

The increase in inmates with mental illnesses, which rose from 3,500 in 2015, makes any depopulation of the overcrowded jails, called for by the courts, that much more difficult.

Many hurdles face the county. First, as part of the motion that passed unanimously on Tuesday, the board needs a legal opinion on whether it can move certain inmates out of jail custody and into what the board’s motion calls “secured mental health care facilities.”

Fifth District Supervisor Kathryn Barger said some of the inmates should not be moved to a less secure facility. “There are offenders who are both mentally ill and pose a significant threat to public safety, but are still in need of treatment,” she said.

Second, to transfer even half of those with mental illness out of county jails, the county would have to buy property and build new mental health treatment centers, or convert an existing building.

The county would seek capital funding as well as funding to hire mental health professionals to operate the facilities. The motion mentions searching for state and federal dollars.

Second District Supervisor Holly Mitchell said a report to the county recommended adding 3,600 new mental health beds — a tall order. “We have to invest in the community-based treatment model in a significant way,” Mitchell said.

In addition, many communities would oppose a secured or locked mental health facility for those accused, or convicted, of violent crimes. Fourth District Supervisor Janice Hahn said she’s received pushback against an affordable housing complex for veterans. “There are major challenges for us to achieve this,” Hahn noted.

Many mental health groups testified in support of the proposed transition of inmates out of county jails.

“It is the missing link in our care for incarcerated people with mental illness,” said Traute Winters, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Greater Los Angeles County. “This is a humanitarian way to treat people (in jails) with severe mental illness.”

The board’s motion indicated the supervisors want to move quickly to build facilities run by the county, or via a contract with a provider. They face a judge’s 2015 order to relieve overcrowded conditions in the jails, and moving those suffering from mental illness would help with that goal.

The JusticeLA Coalition opposed the board’s move, saying that transferring inmates to secured, locked facilities is not the best approach. The reform coalition wanted facilities that don’t lock in patients and instead allow patients to eventually “step down” into community life.

Ambrose Brooks, JusticeLA Coalition coordinator, said, “This motion does nothing to address the current crisis in our jail. We don’t need reports; we need action.”

The board rejected a similar motion by Barger that would have created both secure and non-custodial facilities for those who are in county jails. JusticeLA folks said Barger’s plan would create another jail, but Barger strongly disagreed.

“I’m disappointed my motion was mischaracterized as a call to build a new jail that would provide mental health treatment. It was not,” she said in a prepared statement.