Many people in LA jails could be diverted into mental health treatment

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In a new study, researchers found that more than 3,300 people in the mental health population of the Los Angeles County jail are appropriate candidates for diversion into programs where they would receive community-based clinical services rather than incarceration.

The study was based on a review of the jail population as of June 2019. The findings that are similar to preliminary estimates compiled earlier by L.A. County officials.

The research was conducted by a team at RAND Corporation.

The largest mental health facilities in the U.S. are now county jails, with an estimated 15% of men and 31% of women who are incarcerated in jails nationally having a serious and persistent mental disorder.

In Los Angeles County, 30% of the people incarcerated in the county jail on any given day during 2018 were in mental health housing units and/or prescribed psychotropic medications (5,111 of 17,024 individuals in the average daily inmate population).

The Office of Diversion and Reentry was created by the county in 2015 to develop alternative approaches to dealing with mental health challenges in the criminal justice system.

While L.A. County officials have been pursuing alternatives for individuals with serious mental illness who are incarcerated, there is more demand for the existing services than there is capacity.

RAND was asked by L.A. County to estimate the size of the current population of individuals incarcerated in county jails who likely would be legally suitable and clinically eligible for community-based treatment programs.

Based on a variety of clinical and legal factors, the researchers estimated that about 61% of the individuals in the jail mental health population were appropriate candidates for diversion, 7% were potentially appropriate for diversion and 32% were not appropriate for diversion.

The team says 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.

In addition to increasing diversion programs, RAND researchers suggest that L.A. County improve its ability to collect information about individuals released into community-based programs, the ways different courts handle such cases and the outcomes of people placed into diversion programs.

The county also could look for ways to improve its early diversion efforts, which may be able to help people before they enter the county’s criminal justice system.

For example, some jurisdictions intervene at the point of arrest in an effort to decrease the criminalization of persons with mental illness.

The lead author of the study is Stephanie Brooks Holliday, a behavioral scientist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization.

The study can be found here.

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