LOS ANGELES – About 18% of Los Angeles County jail inmates could be diverted into community-based mental health treatment programs, according to a study released Tuesday.
Roughly 30% of inmates in county jail suffer from mental illness and are either housed in special units and/or prescribed psychotropic drugs, according to the RAND Corp. study that was presented to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. More than 60% of those inmates are appropriate candidates for diversion, based on a set of clinical and legal factors reviewed by RAND.
The situation is not unique to Los Angeles County, as county jails nationwide have become America’s largest mental health facilities.
“There are quite a high number of people in our jails every day who are not there because they actually pose a great risk to public safety but because their offense was committed through some aspect of their mental illness,” Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said. “Most of them do not actually have to be in jail.”
Calculating the size of that group is important, a RAND researcher said.
“Knowing how many people are appropriate for diversion is a first step toward understanding the types of programs, staff and funding that would be needed to treat those individuals in the community,” said Stephanie Brooks Holliday, a behavioral scientist and the study’s lead author.
The study — Estimating the Size of the Divertible Jail Mental Health Population in Los Angeles — looked at the jail population on June 9, 2019, and its findings were similar to those of an earlier study by the county’s Office of Diversion and Reentry.
RAND determined that roughly 61% of mentally ill inmates — more than 3,300 people — would fit the criteria for diversion, and another 7% might be eligible.
RAND researchers focused on a single day’s population. It is difficult to extrapolate the findings to calculate how many fewer jail beds might be needed in a year, when as many as 115,000 people cycle through the system.
That calculation would be important to the Board of Supervisors’ planning for alternatives to the deteriorating and outdated downtown Men’s Central Jail. Justice reform advocates have pushed for a decentralized system of community facilities, while the county has struggled with how to provide quality care for mentally ill inmates who need to remain behind bars.
Los Angeles County officials have long acknowledged that jail is not the best place to treat mental illness and can make things worse.
“You can’t get well in a cell,” Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said, adopting a slogan long used by justice reform advocates.
Authorities say it is cheaper to pay for community programs than to keep people in custody. ODR estimates the daily cost of incarceration at $600 per inmate versus $70 for community care.
“It’s just very expensive to house and treat people in the jail system,” Dr. Kristen Ochoa, ODR’s medical director, told reporters.
The board previously approved $100 million in 2019-20 budget dollars for efforts related to diversion, part of a shift toward a “care first, jail last” policy.
Ridley-Thomas said diversion has a “triple bottom line” of benefits, including making communities safer, breaking the cycle between jail and homelessness and saving taxpayer dollars.
Since its establishment in 2015, ODR has diverted 4,474 individuals into community programs. ODR Director Peter Espinoza, who spent 25 years as a Superior Court judge, pointed to an impressively low 20% recidivism rate for participants as proof that diversion has a positive effect on public safety.
However, the number of community beds available is limited, despite efforts by the Board of Supervisors to increase supply.
“All we need now are resources to increase our capacity,” Ochoa said.
The full RAND study is available at www.rand.org.