Though only a ceremonial act of support, the Santa Monica City Council unanimously voted July 22 to support an effort by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to create a diversion program for people with mental illness to avoid staying in prison but instead sent into “effective community-based treatment.”
The initiative was brought to the Board of Supervisors by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and was based upon a report released in July by the ACLU of Southern California and the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law.
That report, entitled “A Way Forward: Diverting People with Mental Illness From Inhumane and Expensive Jails into Community-Based Treatment that Works,” stated about 500,000 inmates in local jails nationwide have some form of mental illness, with as much as 25 percent of them diagnosed with schizophrenia or some other serious ailment.
“When people with mental health issues are picked up [by law enforcement], they’re thrown in jail. That seems insane to me,” Council member Kevin McKeown, who requested this issue be placed on the July 22 agenda, told his colleagues. “There is a movement underway now to create diversion programs for people with mental illness issues, to get them out of the inhumane – and very-expensive-to-the-taxpayer – jail system and into effective community-based treatment.”
According to the “A Way Forward” report, “at least 3,200 inmates with a diagnosed severe mental illness crowd the jails on a typical day,” in Los Angeles County, or about 17 percent of the jail population.
“These numbers capture only the number of inmates with a diagnosed severe mental illness,” the report continued. “The actual number may well be higher. Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca has called L.A.’s jail system ‘the nation’s largest mental hospital.’”
The report added it is a mistake to try to treat people with a mental illness in jail.
“Jail is a horrific place for a person with mental illness,” the report stated, adding the process of deinstitutionalization from the 1950s to the 1990s resulted in a dramatically sharp drop in mental institutions nationwide.
“The lack of community mental health services, coupled with mass incarceration of non-violent offenders, has resulted in three jails – the Los Angeles County Jails, Rikers Island Correctional Facility in New York City, and Cook County Jail in Chicago – having the distinction of being the nation’s largest psychiatric institutions,” the report stated. “The combination of adverse jail and prison conditions and the lack of adequate and effective treatment resources may result in some prisoners with preexisting mental health conditions suffering an exacerbation of symptoms and even some otherwise healthy prisoners developing mental illness during their incarceration.”
Deinstitutionalization and the lack of available “community-based alternatives” have, according to the report, resulted in both persons with mental illnesses contributing to the overpopulation of local jails and increasing correctional and operational costs.
Accordingly, the report suggests a diversion program be created for people with mental illnesses to be sent, if arrested and convicted, to a community-based treatment program.
“Because doing so will improve public safety by dramatically reducing the rate of future offenses; it will save money by cutting correctional costs and reducing the need for new jail facilities; and it will be far more effective at treating mental illness. It will also prevent those with mental illness from suffering physical and sexual abuse at the hands of deputies and other inmates while incarcerated,” the report stated.
The report found the County spends an estimated $10 million annually on psychiatric medication for inmates with mental illness. Even more, the report also stated about 33 percent of deputy-on-inmate force incidents involve individuals with mental illness.
“Inmates with mental illness are far more likely to suffer sexual and physical assault in jail, and commit suicide at elevated rates while incarcerated,” the report stated. “Evidence-based programs like supportive housing … have shown drastic drops in recidivism and significant improvements in mental health. These programs would also be less expensive for the County than warehousing people with mental illness in jails.”
How the County’s proposal plays out remains to be seen, yet the Board of Supervisors has Santa Monica’s blessings in trying to move forward in trying to address the treatment of people with mental illnesses in local jails.