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Majority of Mental Health Population in County Jail Capable of Being Released, RAND Study Finds
 

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By Jorge Casuso

January 8, 2020 -- The largest mental health facilities in the U.S. are now county jails, with nearly a third of those incarcerated in Los Angeles County suffering from mental illness, according to a recent study by the Santa Monica-based RAND Corporation.

The study, presented to the County Board of Supervisors Tuesday, found that more than 3,300 people in LA County Jail's mental health population -- or 61 percent -- could be diverted to community-based programs that offer clinical services.

“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,” said Stephanie Brooks Holliday, a behavioral scientist at RAND who was the study's lead author.

In LA County, 5,111 of the 17,024 individuals incarcerated in the average daily inmate population "were in mental health housing units and/or prescribed psychotropic medications" in 2018, based on a review of the jail population.

The Office of Diversion and Reentry, created by the County in 2015, is tasked with developing "alternative approaches to dealing with mental health challenges in the criminal justice system," RAND researchers said.

"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," the study found.

County officials asked the non-profit think tank to estimate the size of the current population in county jails "who likely would be legally suitable and clinically eligible for community-based treatment programs," RAND officials said.

Researchers then applied the criteria to a sample of 500 people representative of the County Jail's mental health population.

They found that about 59 percent of men and 74 percent of women were determined to be appropriate candidates for diversion. Men make up 85 percent of the jail mental health population.

The Board of Supervisors earmarked $100 million in its 2019-20 budget for diversion efforts that are part of the County's transition to a ``care first, jail last'' policy, according to reports.

County officials estimate it costs $600 a day to keep an inmate in County jail, compared to $70 for community care.

In addition to increasing diversion programs, RAND researchers suggested the County should "improve its ability to collect information about individuals released into community-based programs."

It also should "look at the ways different courts handle such cases, and the outcomes of people placed into diversion programs."

In addition, the County could look for ways to "help people before they enter the county's criminal justice system."

The researchers noted that some jurisdictions "intervene at the point of arrest in an effort to decrease the criminalization of persons with mental illness."

Despite such diversion efforts, RAND researchers warn that "a large number of individuals with mental health needs" will remain in County jails.

“It 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,” Holliday said.

The report, “Estimating the Size of the Divertible Jail Mental Health Population in Los Angeles County,” is available at www.rand.org.

Other authors of the study are Nicholas M. Pace, Neil Gowensmith, Ira Packer, Daniel Murrie, Alicia Virani, Bing Han and Sarah B. Hunter.


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