Thousands of LA jail inmates should receive community mental health support

A new report has found that more than half of the people with mental health conditions currently confined in Los Angeles county jails would benefit from mental health treatment in specialized community centers instead of incarceration.

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Thousands of LA jail inmates would benefit from receiving mental health support away from prison, a new report suggests.

The Los Angeles (LA) county jail system holds thousands of inmates at any one time, and past reports have suggested that these include many people who were previously homeless and who experience mental health issues.

As a result, if they do not receive appropriate support, these people have a high chance of recidivism, as well as a high likelihood of experiencing homelessness once more after their release from jail.

For this reason, last year, the LA County Board of Supervisors decided to focus more on the possibility of offering mental health support in community-based centers to inmates who may qualify for it.

To this end, LA County commissioned RAND Corporation — a not-for-profit, global policy-oriented research organization — to find out how many current county jail inmates would benefit from moving to community-based facilities to receive mental health treatment.

The 31 page report used data about the jail population from June 2019, which revealed that at that time, 5,544 inmates were living in special mental health housing units or receiving psychotropic drugs, or both.

A pathway to ‘smart policy making’

The researchers who conducted this study had to develop a set of considerations to find out how many and which of these inmates would benefit from diversion to community-based mental healthcare.

Eligible individuals, the researchers say, are those who experience a serious mental illness that requires targeted therapy.

“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,” says lead author Stephanie Brooks Holliday.

The researchers estimated that 3,368 — or 61% — of these LA county jail inmates were definitely eligible for diversion to community-based clinical services, while an additional 414 (7%) were potentially eligible.

The remaining 32% of the people in this prison subpopulation (1,762 individuals) were definitely not eligible for diversion, according to the new report.

When applying the eligibility criteria to a representative sample of 500 participants living in county jails who also experienced mental health problems, the researchers found that 59% of the men and 74% of the women were eligible for diversion to a mental health program.

“Diversion is stopping the cycle between jail and homelessness,” emphasizes county supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who was not involved in the study on which the report was based.

Just in the last 3 years, the Office of Diversion and Reentry has safely diverted over 4,400 people from the county jails to more appropriate settings where they can get treatment, instead of the costly alternative of serving additional time in jail and being released with no supports, too often ending up homeless. This is smart policy making.”

Mark Ridley-Thomas

“RAND’s research underscores the need to double down on diversion to reach all those who could benefit,” the LA county supervisor adds.

The researchers involved in the RAND study also make some recommendations in their report. One of these is that the relevant authorities should increase the number and capacity of community-based programs for diversion.

Another recommendation is that LA County officials should improve the quality of data collection processes to get more information about jail inmates eligible for diversion.

“[E]ven with increases in diversion, there will continue to be a large number of individuals with mental health needs who remain in the jails,” Holliday cautions.

That is why, she adds, “[i]t is important that there are services in place to care for people who are incarcerated and provide continuing services once they are released back into the community.”