By Jason KUROSU
The Los Angeles County Dept. of Mental Health held a legislative breakfast Friday morning promoting diversion services for the mentally ill, who are making up an ever-increasing portion of the nation’s prison population.
Keynote speakers Marvin Southard, DSW, director of the Dept. of Mental Health, and L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey advocated a greater focus on treatment in a justice system that largely incarcerates without distinction for the needs of the mentally ill.
“Because L.A. County has the largest jail in the country, too many are just getting lost in the shuffle, falling through the cracks,” said Lacey, who heads a mental health task force consisting of mental health professionals, law enforcement and a number of other agencies.
The breakfast was held at the Junior Blind of America in Los Angeles by members of numerous organizations that provide services for the mentally ill. Members of law enforcement were also in attendance, as their presence highlighted one of the key efforts that Lacey and the Dept. of Mental Health are pursuing: the establishment of Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT) within the police force. These teams would consist of officers trained to interact with the mentally ill using techniques that could prevent violence or loss of life.
Referring to the 2011 death of Kelly Thomas in Fullerton, in which the homeless Thomas was killed by police officers as they tried to detain him, Lacey urged the importance of a police force more adept for encounters with the mentally ill.
“Had there been a little more patience, someone on the scene with a lot more training and skill, and who knew the history of this young man, I really believe he would be alive today. That scenario plays out in our country over and over again,” said Lacey. “It’s our mission to figure out how to train more police officers to successfully go in and de-escalate those situations.”
Lacey said the lack of understanding of mental illness is not limited to law enforcement.
“When I became a prosecutor in 1986, the only training prosecutors received on mental illness was how to cross-examine an expert who is testifying in a death penalty case about why someone shouldn’t be executed. That is the extent of the training and knowledge of the thousand prosecutors who encounter these cases.”
The speakers acknowledged that training officers for CIT would be one of the challenges in putting these teams together.
“The 40-hour CIT program is difficult because as officers are training they’re not in the field. So, we’re trying to figure out how to get the training done in ways that are practical,” said Southard.
Lacey spoke about beginning the CIT training for officers at the academy level, though identifying which officers are best suited for the training is important.
“Not everyone has the skill set to be a crisis coordination officer,” said Lacey, who did say that likely everyone in law enforcement should receive at least eight hours of training in interacting with the mentally ill.
The L.A. County board of supervisors recently voted approval of $41 million in state funding towards forming CITs and opening 24-hour urgent care centers. Funds from Senate Bill 82, Investment in Mental Health Wellness Act of 2013, will also aid the expansion of those services.
However, Southard said that more would be needed.
“We’re going to need to ask the community – the nonprofit community, the healthcare community, everyone – to think together on how we’re going to create this system across the board that better serves our community.”
Along with treatment services for those currently in prison, Southard said a discharge program was necessary for those just exiting the prison system.
“Recidivism is lowest for those who are linked with a primary care physician,” said Southard.
Lacey and Southard have also been working on establishing a list of lower level crimes that would qualify someone who is mentally ill and arrested by police for a place in an urgent care center rather than jail. With the funds approved by the board of supervisors, approximately 560 beds will be provided at those centers.
Southard said, “The existing care centers work well, provided that they are connected with other programs,” which include treatment, both for mental health and substance abuse.
“For many obvious reasons, people in prison are among the unhealthiest members of our society,” said Herman DeBose, vice chair of the Los Angeles County Mental Health Commission, who said that severe mental illness is twice as common inside prison as it is in the general population.