The mentally ill in our jails

An estimated 15% of inmates held in Los Angeles County's sprawling jail system require some kind of mental health care. Those detainees cost more to house, often remain longer and are more likely to wind up back in jail after being released than other inmates.

Until now, county officials have been reluctant to consider alternatives to detention for those inmates. But a new district attorney and a recently appointed assistant sheriff for custody are taking a second look at policies that could divert low-risk mentally ill inmates into local treatment programs. It's a welcome development that could, if carried out carefully, save money and reduce jail crowding without making the streets more dangerous.

We understand it wouldn't be easy. There are plenty of unanswered questions, including which inmates would be eligible for diversion. The county has yet to establish a risk assessment system that can confidently and efficiently predict which inmates are most likely to comply with therapy regimes and which are too mentally ill or too dangerous to release into local facilities. And county officials will also need to determine just how much treatment space is available and who will pay for additional beds that may be needed.

At the moment there are differences of opinion between civil rights advocates and law enforcement officials about how many mentally ill inmates could be safely diverted from the jails, with law enforcement officials inclined to be more cautious about potential public safety problems and popular backlash. But the good news is they agree in principle that diversion is possible and necessary.

In Miami-Dade County in Florida, officials have made significant changes in the way the criminal justice system treats mentally ill defendants, opting to focus county resources on diversion and treatment to reduce the jail population. Early reports about the program there have been positive, and we're pleased that the district attorney's office and the Sheriff's Department are considering whether a similar model can work here. They have taken the first step by starting a conversation with community-based groups that work with the mentally ill. They ought to continue to push forward and take full advantage of the state and federal funds available to help pay for diversion programs.

Clearly, some mentally ill individuals are dangerous and must be incarcerated to protect the public. But many others do not need to be warehoused in Los Angeles county's overcrowded jails. It is time to opt for smarter, cheaper and more effective alternatives.

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