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Screaming Inmates Make L.A. Rethink Jailing Mentally Ill

9-26-2014 California:

Inmates in suicide-proof gowns scream and bang on their cell doors one floor below Terri McDonald’s office in the Twin Towers Correctional Facility. The bedlam is a reminder, if she needs one, that the mentally ill population in the largest U.S. jail system is out of control.

It’s a “shameful social and public-safety issue,” said McDonald, the assistant sheriff who runs Los Angeles County’s jails. “I believe we can do better. I believe at some point in the future we’ll look back and wonder, ‘What took so long?’”

That’s been a question for years. Conditions for mentally ill inmates in the county have been a focus of federal probes since 1997, and the number with psychiatric disorders was an issue in a recent debate over a new jail. Keeping a mentally ill person behind bars can cost more than $50,000 annually, while treatment could run two-thirds less. Criminal justice systems from Seattle to Miami with aggressive jail-diversion efforts have cut inmate headcounts -- and lowered recidivism rates.

L.A. County has taken tentative steps to join them. The board of supervisors in July endorsed the concept of broadbased diversion, and last week pledged $756,000 for a pilot program.

“Los Angeles has had a strong and powerful law-enforcement presence, and this is the framework they’ve worked on for so long that they’ve had a hard time looking at anything different,” said Diana Zuñiga, statewide field organizer of Californians United for a Responsible Budget, which lobbies for more spending on social services and less on jails. “I’m hopeful. We’ve been doing things wrong for too long.”

Lock-’Em-Up Approach

Even with violent crime rates falling, U.S. inmate populations have swelled as policy makers toughened penalties and shut down psychiatric hospitals. The incarceration rate is the world’s highest, and the bill more than $85 billion a year.

In L.A., where the annual jail budget is $850 million, the lock-’em-up approach feeds cycles of crime and homelessness by shuttling people with mental disorders between cells and the streets, said Peter Eliasberg, regional legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union. “Others have done a much better job of saying, ‘We’re not going to get anywhere by incarcerating low-level mentally ill offenders -- in fact, it might be counterproductive.’ People don’t get well on the streets. They don’t get well in jail.” ..Continued.. by James Nash

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