By Ashleen Herrarte
LOS ANGELES, CA – California Superior Court Judge James Bianco in the Los Angeles Times this week discussed an LA program that helps people get mental health care instead of jail time, but yet is not being expanded.
Bianco, who has been assigned to the Mental Health courthouse in Los Angeles since 2013, deals with people who are homeless or have serious mental health illnesses.
He said his cases involve people from all over Los Angeles County. During his nine years of being a mental health court judge, he said he has been able to help many get treatment and to see what helps them and what does not.
Bianco said he has noticed that one program that helps is the LA County Office of Diversion and Reentry. ODR was formed back in 2015 by the Board of Supervisors after being recommended by then-District Attorney Jackie Lacey.
Since then, the program has focused on helping those with mental issues stay out of jail and into permanent supportive housing, keeping them off the streets and out of hospitals.
Then, in late June, the LA County Board of Supervisors missed an opportunity to expand ODR’S housing, said the judge, when it passed a motion that calls for further study of expanding the housing slots by 500, which would lead to there being 2,700 slots.
One report in 2019 by RAND Corporation found that, after being served by the ODR’S housing program, “74 percent had stable housing and 86 percent remained free of new felony convictions.”
Another RAND study in 2020 showed “more people in the county’s court system need[ed] its services” since rates of criminal re-offense, failure to appear in court, and hospitalization for psychiatric needs were lower for those given an ODR spot.
Bianco explained that “as of June, ODR has released more than 8,000 people from jail into community services via its various programs.”
Despite there being challenges, many of the ODR staff have helped create housing, provide medication and treatment as well as give people the chance they may have never had, the judge said, adding many of the participants are supported by an onsite treatment team which can consist of nurses, psychiatrists, therapists and case managers.
In many instances, Bianco said he has seen “the ODR folks recognize that people are people regardless of the circumstances and they bring empathy, heart, and determination to their work.”
Yet ODR is not successful in every case, the judge reminds, noting sometimes because of drug abuse and other challenges, participants end up back on the street.
According to Bianco, this “agency’s success stands out” compared to the other committees and task forces that are focused on helping those with mental issues. Courts nationwide face many issues such as a lack of adequate treatment resources as well as a broken mental health system. This leads to there being a “huge number of people who end up in the criminal justice system since they did not receive proper care.”
In February 2020, Bianco hosted a group of judges who traveled to Los Angeles from Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Maryland and Oregon to observe ODR’S work.
Bianco described that their response to this program was that “they wished they had access to a comparable agency.”
Even though the program is running in Los Angeles County, the ODR’s housing program has been unable to accept any new cases over the year, which leads to frustration from other judges, as well as Bianco.
ODR offers other programs to hundreds of people who are referred from a criminal court to a mental health court, but with inadequate funding, some cases are dismissed from Bianco’s courtroom without any treatment or support, he maintains.
Bianco notes that “it doesn’t make sense to feed that cycle by delaying the expansion of an approach we already know works.”