Strides for Mental Health Reform for Incarceration Population

By Julietta Bisharyan

With mentally ill inmates now making up 20% of the prison populations and with modern prisons being compared to asylums (Treatment Advocacy Center), the MacArthur Foundation has donated a $1.2 million grant to help inmates get treatment in the LA County. This two-year grant is intended to curb the overcrowding of prison inmates, specifically for those struggling with mental health issues and homelessness.

Mental health plays a huge role in sentencing. Mentally ill inmates tend to stay longer in correctional facilities than other inmates because they struggle with following jail and prison protocol. In one study, mentally ill inmates were responsible for 41% of violations, despite only making up 19% of the prison population (TAC). In some states, mentally ill patients wait longer for competency restoration than their actual sentence.

In addition, mentally ill inmates are costly. From supplemental staffing to psychiatric medications, a 2003 report states that “the average prisoner costs the state about $22,000 a year,” but “prisoners with mental illness range from $30,000 to $50,000 a year” (TAC). Prisons are already expensive as it is, so with the additional costs for those struggling with mental health only adds to the growing cost.

Suicide is also more frequent for those incarcerated. A study from 2002 found that “the prevalence of mental illness among inmates who attempted suicide was 77%, compared with 15% [among inmates] in the general jail population” (TAC). By forcing those severely struggling with mental health issues into prison cells, inmates become more likely to consider or commit suicide.

Many who are convicted are not violent criminals and most have yet to go to trial. Often, mental health worsens in prison as they do not receive sufficient treatment. It also becomes more difficult for those leaving jail to gain access to healthcare and benefits––in addition to housing and job searching. These individuals end up homeless and are often re-arrested, with the cycle continuing (National Alliance on Mental Health).

The Mental Health Diversion Grant will help the Public Defender’s Office to “expand pre-plea diversion for those in custody as a result of a mental disorder” (Law Offices of Los Angeles County Public Defender). The grant aims to focus on helping the homeless population as well and breaking the incarceration cycle.

Six months into the program, 70 clients with misdemeanor arraignments have already pre-plea diverted into treatment from the criminal system. This funding can help alleviate issues with overpopulation by moving inmates to a more productive and beneficial program.

In the words of LA County Public Defender Ricardo D. García, “Mentally ill people do not belong in jails” (LOLACPD). The homelessness and mentally ill crisis first sparked urgency five years ago and has since inspired collaboration with various agencies.

This funding will bring mental-health professionals into the courtroom, same-day assessments for mentally ill defendants, and essentially divert individuals into mental health treatment programs.

The initiative uses a state law, the provisions of AB 1810, which allows pre-plea diversion for defendants with mental health needs to set the program in motion. Various other states and counties may copy this model in the future.

Partner agencies are comprised of the Los Angeles County Alternate Public Defender; Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office; Department of Mental Health; Sheriff’s Department; Department of Probation; Department of Public Health; Health Agency Departments; County Counsel’s Bail Reform Team; Project 180, with support from the Superior Court, MacArthur Foundation, and the DA’s Office (LOLACPD).

This grant aims to promote an alternative to incarceration by directing mentally ill individuals towards treatment programs. Hopefully, this can curb the overpopulation rates and redirect the focus towards reformation.

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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  1. Eric Gelber

    This is very promising as long as sufficient funding is available to meet the supportive services requirements specified in the enabling legislation—AB 1810:

    (1) Provision of clinically appropriate or evidence-based mental health treatment and wraparound services across a continuum of care, as appropriate, to meet the individual needs of the diversion participant. For purposes of this section, “wraparound services” means services provided in addition to the mental health treatment necessary to meet the individual’s needs for successfully managing his or her mental health symptoms and to successfully live in the community. Wraparound services provided by the diversion program may include, but are not limited to, forensic assertive community treatment teams, crisis residential services, intensive case management, criminal justice coordination, peer support, supportive housing, substance use disorder treatment, and vocational support.
    (2) Collaboration between community stakeholders and other partner government agencies in the diversion of individuals with serious mental disorders.
    (3) Connection of individuals to services in the community after they have completed diversion as provided in this chapter.

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