The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors took the first steps Tuesday to move all jail inmates charged with misdemeanors but judged incompetent to stand trial out of jail and into community-based treatment.
Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Holly Mitchell co-authored a motion recommending the shift to community care, directing county lawyers to report back on the process required to rescind approval for the county jail system to treat the “MIST” population.
“The people who will benefit from today’s motion are individuals accused of minor crimes,” Kuehl said. “If they did not have serious mental illness, chances are they would only be in jail for a few days. But because they have serious mental illness, and must be restored to competence before their case can be decided, they often remain in jail for a long time. That makes no sense legally, medically or financially.”
The move is part of the county’s commitment to a “care first, jails last” approach. The number of competency filings for felony and misdemeanor cases has soared over the last decade, increasing more than sevenfold from 2010 to 2019. However, the pandemic forced an expansion of community-based treatment and just 70 people remain in jail as part of the MIST population as of March, according to the motion.
Under U.S. law, individuals who are declared by a judge to be incapable of understanding the trial process cannot be tried or convicted. Those individuals must be “restored” to competence before criminal proceedings can resume. Advocates say letting those awaiting trial maintain connections to family members and community support can help limit recidivism, and connecting them to housing and other resources can improve their odds for long-term success.
While there is widespread agreement on the board about the benefits of offering treatment outside of jail, there is still a question of capacity. The board directed the departments of Mental Health and Health Services to report back in two weeks with an inventory of available community services and beds and potential funding sources. The board also asked DMH to coordinate with the Office of Public Defender and the Sheriff’s Department on implementation.
Some members of the public cautioned the board about moving too quickly to remove the jail’s authority to treat mentally ill inmates facing a misdemeanor charge. However, Mitchell underscored the need for a better standard of care than can be provided in a jail environment.
“Jail cannot be our catch all solution for residents living with serious mental health challenges that are in need of care,” Mitchell said.