Mentally ill homeless people keep going to jail. But a study says L.A. County can fix that

On a typical day, thousands of homeless and mentally ill people are behind bars in Los Angeles County’s jails. But more than half of them would be good candidates to divert into housing with supportive services instead, according a new study from the Department of Health Services.

If enough housing and services were available, nearly 3,000 people in custody at any given time would be eligible for release — either before their trials or before finishing their sentences.

The study, released Monday, shows the potential to break the well-worn cycle of homelessness, incarceration and return to homelessness, said Peter Espinoza, a retired judge who heads the Office of Diversion and Reentry (ODR).

So far, the ODR program has secured the release of about 3,000 inmates into housing in community-based settings with medical and psychological support. More than 90% remained housed at least six months.

At a news conference Monday, a host of county officials including Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey, the head of probation, the public defender and three members of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors declared the program a success. They all committed to expanding it.

“Our jails should not be used to house people whose behavior arose out of acute mental health crisis merely because it is believed, whether correctly or otherwise, that there is no other place to take that person to receive treatment,” Lacey said.

The county also is working with RAND Corporation on a larger study about the overall effectiveness of diversion programs. The findings will be out this fall.

For Espinoza, the significance of the dual announcements on Monday was greater than the numbers.

“The cultural shift within the justice system has been an amazing thing to see,” Espinoza said in an interview. “I wouldn’t have anticipated it two years ago to have occurred this quickly. But it has happened.”

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