Diverting Mentally Ill Low-Level Offenders Makes Sense For L.A.

Hope for Troubled Suspects; A Pilot Program for Defendants Living with Mental Illness could Transform the L.A. County Justice System.” Los Angeles Times Sep 18 2014 – By Marisa Gerber

“Los Angeles officials announced Wednesday the launch of an alternative sentencing program aimed at diverting mentally ill, low-level offenders from jail into treatment, a project they hope will signal a dramatic shift for the county’s criminal justice system.

The $756,000 initiative marks one of the county’s most significant attempts to find a better way to treat people who have mental illness and wind up in the criminal justice system by offering them transitional housing, medical treatment and job-hunting help. Officials say the pilot program will start in Van Nuys and initially help 50 people at a time, but it is expected to spread throughout the county and could accommodate up to 1,000 people at once.

The program is designed to reduce jail overcrowding and end a revolving door for offenders with mental illness who find themselves incarcerated for relatively minor crimes.

“It is time to stop bouncing people who are mentally ill and genuinely sick between the streets and our jails,” said Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey. “This is an unconscionable waste of human life and money…

A similar but more comprehensive plan in Miami-Dade County, which L.A. officials used as a model, saw a dramatic drop in recidivism rates.

Judge Steve Leifman, who helped start the Criminal Mental Health Project in Florida, said that when the program started in 2000 the recidivism rate for low-level misdemeanor offenders with mental illness was 72%. Now, he said, it’s down to 20%.

The Miami-Dade plan, which included training thousands of police officers on how to deal with people who have mental illness, cut the local jail population nearly in half and allowed the county to close one of its facilities.

Leifman said he thought L.A.’s decision to start with a pilot program in one region and let it spread made sense.

“We started very slow and very small,” he said. “We had to show people that this was not just about letting people off with no consequences…. You have to show them it works.”

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