When aiding the mentally ill, the Public Defender soars

The LA County Public Defender’s Jail Liaison Program won the Silver Eagle Award during Los Angeles County’s Quality and Productivity Awards Ceremony on Oct. 18, 2017 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

The second highest award in the Top 10 category, the honor is the highest level award received by the Public Defender from the Quality and Productivity Commission.

The new LA County Public Defender program assists incarcerated, mentally ill and developmentally disabled clients. The award honors LA County departmental improvement efforts deserving recognition by the Board of Supervisors, Chief Executive Office, Quality and Productivity Commission and the public.

Called the Public Defender Jail Mental Health Liaison Program, the effort for the first time allows Public Defender licensed clinical social workers direct access to detained mentally ill and developmentally disabled inmates. These efforts help ensure the inmates receive the correct medication, proper interventions, more humane treatment and alternatives to remaining in custody. The approach also improves their legal outcomes in court.

Public Defender Clinical Social Worker Natalie Rojano Jenkins speaks with a client at Twin Towers.

Since its inception in January 2016, more than 400 mentally ill and developmentally disabled inmates have benefited from this crucial service, significantly reducing the need for these vulnerable clients to endure forced, often-violent physical extraction from cells.

The Public Defender program was developed in collaboration with the Department of Mental Health (Health Services), the Sheriff and the District Attorney. Currently, the program is available for the Airport and Lancaster branch offices with hopes to expand.

Program collaborators from left: Head Deputy Mitchell Bruckner, Clinical Social Worker Natalie Rojano Jenkins, Chief Joanne Sharp; Social Worker Manager Tracie Jones and Assistant Public Defender Winston A. Peters.

Often, mentally ill clients in custody are incapable of meaningful communication with their attorneys either in person, or through video conferencing and telephone calls. Many are not taking proper medication, suffer from depression or become suicidal. They may refuse to exit their cell to appear in court. This may result in disciplinary issues. The attorney-client relationship may suffer.

The social worker liaison streamlines each client’s case and improves the way the Public Defender functions in general. Before the program, if a mentally ill client had an issue in jail — not taking their medication, refusing to go to court or eat, becoming despondent — sheriff’s deputies would contact the client’s attorney, who would try to schedule a meeting usually at a later date.

Now, deputies email the liaison team and within 24 hours, typically much sooner, and a Public Defender social worker arrives at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility where most mentally ill inmates are housed and meets with the client face-to-face.

With the inmates’ mental health issues analyzed, assessed and resolved by the liaison, Public Defender attorneys can focus their attention on the legal aspects of the case. These coordinated efforts expedite case processing, and result in better case outcomes and quicker mental health services for the client.

Often, after the social worker speaks with a client refusing to leave his cell, the issue is resolved, eliminating the need for forced removal. Addressing the client’s underlying psychological and medical needs reduces court delays and ultimately helps the client move out of the criminal justice system.