Our County jail has been called the biggest mental health institution in the country. That’s because thousands of people who suffer from serious mental illness end up in jail if they do not receive the treatment they need to manage their illness.
Back in 1963, President Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Act with the intention of jumpstarting construction of a community-based system of care that would provide treatment for people with mental health problems, but the community care was never built, and today, people with serious mental illness often end up in custody, or on the street, or in an unending cycle between the two.
In the last few years, the Board of Supervisors has shown a clear resolve in favor of a ‘treatment first, jail last’ approach, and expanding treatment and sentencing options. On Monday, I brought a motion to the Board that was unanimously approved to explore the creation of a fund to support future LA County diversion efforts, because if we don’t make sure we have the resources to build a new system of care, it will never get built.
This week’s action is the most recent of several significant steps the Board has taken to improve mental health treatment for our friends, neighbors and family members. Four years ago, we established an Office of Diversion and Reentry (ODR) which has since launched several pilot programs successfully diverting thousands of men and women with mental illness from jail. A recent ODR report indicated that an estimated 56% of the mentally ill inmate population could be safely diverted, thereby improving treatment and reducing incarceration costs.
This past February, the Board passed another motion that I authored to create an Alternatives to Incarceration Work Group to make recommendations on how to increase treatment options and alternatives to custody, as well as develop the programs and facilities needed to scale up our diversion system so that it provides an alternative for any person who may be eligible.
The steps the Board has taken hold tremendous promise for reducing homelessness, building safer communities, and improving the lives of individuals who cycle in and out of our justice system for want of appropriate treatment. As LA County’s plans move forward to replace Men’s Central Jail with custodial and health treatment facilities, I am very proud to see the Board take action to ensure that the resources are in place to plan to fund facilities embedded in communities to make our new “treatment first” approach real.