What a difference a week makes. Last Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors considered various proposals that would expand the number of beds for mentally ill inmates as part of a new jail construction plan.
This week, the supervisors heard from state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), who outlined how increased state funding earmarked for mental health and substance-abuse treatment could be used to help reduce the county’s jail population.
Steinberg’s visit is yet another reminder that before the supervisors ask taxpayers to spend $1 billion to build a new jail, the county ought to consider some alternative ways to deal with overcrowding, including diversion programs for those mentally ill inmates who pose no public safety threat.
Currently, about 3,000 inmates receive some kind of mental health care. Of those, some face serious charges. But about 1,100 are in jail because they are charged with, or have been convicted of, nonviolent offenses such as drug possession, according to Sheriff’s Department data.
Clearly, not all of those inmate will be good candidates for a diversion program. Some may have prior convictions that make them too dangerous to be released into the community. Others may require the kind of acute care that is in short supply. But surely, some would do far better in a residential treatment program that could help provide care in a non-incarceration setting, and hopefully, keep them from cycling in and out of jail.
But what is clear is that the supervisors should look closely at whether some of those mentally ill inmates really belong in jail, now that the county is poised to receive significantly more money to help fund mental health and substance-abuse programs.
As Steinberg noted, one source of funding is Proposition 63, which raised tax revenue to help fund treatment for mental illness. Another is grant money set aside by state lawmakers in the 2013-14 budget that could total $200 million and could be used to pay for mobile mental health crisis teams, residential beds and case management.
And finally, there is SB 105 money, which will become available only if a federal court agrees to give Gov. Jerry Brown more time to reduce the state’s prison population. Late Tuesday, federal judges granted Brown a 30-day reprieve.
I hope the supervisors take a closer look at the opportunities before them. As Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas noted last week, "jails are clearly a necessity," but what services those jails provide and who is kept in them is another matter.