$1.2 Million Mental Health Diversion Grant

The LA County Public Defender’s Office is the lead agency for a $1.2 million grant to divert people suffering from mental illness out of jails and into treatment. LA County has been awarded the two-year grant from the MacArthur Foundation to directly address the over-incarceration of the mentally ill.

Los Angeles County operates the world’s largest jail system and its jails remain critically overcrowded. One of the main drivers of the local jail population is the incarceration of the mentally ill.

Already 70 Clients Pre-Plea Diverted

The grant allows the Public Defender’s Office, working with other County and City agencies, to expand pre-plea diversion for those in custody as a result of a mental disorder. The effort will work toward breaking the cycle from medical and mental health facilities to custody, with a focus on the homeless population.

About six-months in, the pilot program providing mental health diversion to misdemeanor arraignment clients made possible with the grant has already pre-plea diverted more than 70 clients into treatment and out of the criminal system.

“Mentally ill people do not belong in jails,” LA County Public Defender Ricardo D. García said. “The startup funding provided by the MacArthur Foundation represents a substantial opportunity to mitigate the counterproductive use of criminal courts and jails as holding centers for the mentally ill men, women and children of Los Angeles County.”

This initiative embeds mental health professionals in high volume courtrooms, same-day assessments of defendants who appear to suffer from a mental health disorder, and the pre-plea release and diversion of qualifying individuals into mental health treatment programs.

To help guide the launch of the program, the initiative utilizes provisions of AB 1810, a state law enacted in 2018 that allows pre-plea diversion for some defendants with mental health needs.

Partner agencies in this endeavor include 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 most recently the DA’s Office.

“Other counties and states have expressed an interest in copying this model,” said Deputy Public Defender Nick Stewart-Oaten, who co-wrote the mental health diversion statute, lobbied for years to get it passed, and wrote the MacArthur grant.

Some Background

This effort began nearly five years ago. The homelessness/mentally ill crisis injected a sense of urgency and provided an opportunity for collaboration with other agencies.

“The long-term goal is to achieve cultural change in the courthouse,” said Division Chief Ramon Quintana, a key member of the initiative, adding that plans are in the works to expand to Airport and Van Nuys. “We want to see more humane treatment of our clients, through alternatives to incarceration, including housing and other services.

“True success may be years away when every courthouse has the needed resources to provide more effective services to our clients,” Quintana added. “Until then, we will all continue to fight to bring about meaningful change.”