The voices of professionals, family members and advocates for the mentally ill are making progress against the inhumane criminalization of those with mental illness. A national movement toward jail diversion programs for people with mental illness began a decade ago in Miami-Dade County. Judge Steve Leifman helped start the Criminal Mental Health Project in Florida. Now, a similar program is coming to Los Angeles. An alternative sentencing program has been launched to divert mentally ill, low level offenders from jail into transitional housing, medical treatment and job-hunting assistance. The pilot program will start in Van Nuys helping 50 people at a time and is expected to spread throughout the county to accommodate 1000 people at once.
“It is time to stop housing people who are mentally ill and genuinely sick between the streets and our jails,” said District Attorney Jackie Lacey. “This is an unconscionable waste of human life and money.”
Those who complete the treatment and any court imposed probation will have their pending criminal charges cleared from their records. A 90-day version of the program will also be available for people arrested on misdemeanor charges. This could have a significant impact on the jail population as a whole. The Miami-Dade plan, which included training thousands of police officers on how to deal with people who have mental illness, cut local jail population nearly in half.
Kudos should be given to District Attorney Jackie Lacey for supporting this program because prosecutors are often one of the biggest obstacles. With her support it makes the program more likely to succeed.