California seeks cost-effective mental health strategies to help reduce jail population

610 200 Nadine Ono

The intersection between mental health and Los Angeles County’s criminal justice system will be the focus of the California Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission (MHSOAC) this week as it conducts a series of meetings and panel discussions in Los Angeles. This week’s meetings are part of a series that are occurring throughout the state as part of the Commission’s comprehensive review of the issue and is expected to result in policy recommendations in 2017.

“One of the explicit goals is reducing the number of mental health consumers who are incarcerated in California’s jails and prisons,” said Toby Ewing, MHSOAC’s executive director explaining the purpose of the series. “We want to understand what’s happening in L.A., what’s working, where there are challenges and how we can support improved outcomes through prevention and early intervention programs through innovative strategies or other opportunities.”

MHSOAC oversees the implementation of the Mental Health Services Act (MHSA), which was established with the passage of Proposition 63 in 2004. The Commission also is responsible for developing strategies to overcome stigma of mental illness and advising the Governor or the Legislature on mental health policy.

The commission is interested in hearing from stakeholders, including mental health consumers who have been involved with the criminal justice system, their families and community leaders, as well as criminal justice officials from law enforcement, the courts and mental health agencies.

“It’s bold for them to take on this complex issues at the intersection between criminal justice and mental health,” said Kathy Jett, a CA Fwd policy consultant who worked with MHSOAC to create this week’s program. “It’s probably one of the most daunting problems in the state and it hasn’t been examined for decades. They’re in an ideal role to facilitate this process.” Jett is on the CA Fwd’s Justice System Change Initiative (J-SCI) team, which is working with counties to reduce their jail populations using data-driven evidence, which includes data on mentally ill incarceration.

Jett credits the leadership of Santa Barbara Sheriff Bill Brown, who also is a MHSOAC commissioner for making this issue a priority: “Sheriff Brown understands first-hand the pressures this population puts on his jail. He is equally concerned about the re-entry process and diverting this population from going to jail in the first place.”

On Wednesday the Commission will hold a Subcommittee Public Engagement meeting, which includes guest speakers from the Los Angeles County Mental Health Court and a panel presentation about statewide efforts to address the criminal justice/mental health intersection.

On Thursday the commission will hold a formal public hearing, which will include testimony from officials, including Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey, leaders of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Mental Evaluation Unit (MEU), members of the Council of Mentally Ill Offenders (COMIO), as well as family members and advocates for those with mentally health challenges caught in the criminal justice system.

“Every county designs and organizes its mental health programs differently,” said Ewing. “Los Angeles is understood to have some of the most significant challenges as well as some focused approaches to address this challenge.”

He also sees that the information coming out of this week’s meetings can benefit officials statewide. “We understand where there are shared challenges, understand where there are pilot projects or evidenced-based projects that we can promote statewide. So ideally, we’d like to learn what’s working. We’d like to learn what’s not working and create the right kind of environment for expanding best practices and not continue to do things that are not productive.”


Nadine Ono

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