There’s general agreement that the aging Men’s Central Jail in downtown L.A. needs to be torn down. The question is: what should replace the 1963 concrete fortress?
On Tuesday, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors is set to provide an answer. It’s considering a few options:
- Replace the jail with a lockup tailored to provide better care to mentally ill inmates
- Build a mental health treatment center instead of a jail
- Put the whole thing off and study how to divert more people with mental health problems out of the criminal justice system
Until recently, many believed the project to build a new jail was a done deal. It was pitched to be a 3,885-bed facility “primarily designed for the treatment of different acuities of medical and/or mental illness or substance abuse disorders,” according to a county website that explains the project.
Now, there’s fierce debate over whether it’s the right way to go, given that the county is in the middle of attempting to transform how it deals with mentally ill people who commit crimes – many of whom are homeless. About one-third of all jail inmates have some sort of mental illness and one-quarter need special housing – an estimated 5,100 in all.
Reasons why the jail shouldn’t be built have support from L.A. criminal justice stakeholders and experts alike:
- Most of the estimated 5,100 mentally ill jail inmates can be safely diverted to community-based treatment facilities with varying degrees of security, and the board of supervisors should put the CCTF on hold while the county studies additional diversion options.
- Diversion was once a boutique idea that didn’t move a lot of mentally ill inmates out of the jails. It’s different now. The Office of Diversion and Reentry, led by former Superior Court Judge Pete Espinoza, diverted about 3,000 inmates since the office was created two-and-a-half years ago. “The thinking has all changed,” said Kristen Ochoa, Diverson and Reentry’s medical director. “Nobody thought we could do this on this scale … there’s about to be a sea change” in terms of the numbers of people diverted.
- Housing people with mental health problems in jail is inherently problematic. Sheriff’s deputies have a fundamentally different agenda than clinicians. Mentally ill people often act out, and a deputy’s natural reaction to someone breaking the rules is to punish them, said Dr. Terry Kupers, Equitas National Advisor, and psychiatrist who has studied L.A.’s jails for the ACLU. In a treatment setting operated by clinicians, the response is to talk someone down, he said. Likewise, mentally ill people behind bars prefer to be alone, which can make their condition worse. Clinicians would seek to coax them out, Kupers said.
- The county should build on the state and local diversion initiatives. In addition to the efforts mentioned by Kuehl and Solis, L.A. County is looking at ending cash bail, meaning poor people — some of whom have mental health issues — wouldn’t have to languish in jail awaiting disposition of their case. In addition, District Attorney Jackie Lacey, another Equitas National Advisor, has established a Mental Health Division to help frontline prosecutors identify mentally ill inmates who can be safely diverted from jail.
- L.A. has a bad record running its jails and especially caring for the mentally ill. And new Sheriff Alex Villanueva has expressed misgivings about building a mental health jail where his deputies would be forced to deal with inmates who regularly act out. He’s suggested a public hospital would be a better investment, an idea that seems to be reflected in the amendment calling for a Mental Health Treatment Center.
Excerpted from LAist.