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Criminal Justice

Activists Say LA County (Still) Hasn’t Invested Enough In Mental Health Beds Needed To Divert People From Jail

Amber Sam stands at a podium surrounded by a crowd of people who attended a rally to call on LA County to invest more in mental health treatment beds. Sam wears white pants and a black shirt.
Amber Sam (center, holding mic) speaks at a rally Wednesday.
(Robert Garrova / LAist )
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A coalition of criminal justice reform advocates rallied in front of the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration in downtown L.A. Wednesday. Activists with JusticeLA and other groups want to see the county invest in 3,600 new community-based mental health beds. That’s the minimum number of beds needed to care for people in jail with serious mental health issues, according to a report last year from a workgroup led by the County Office of Diversion and Reentry (ODR) and the Sheriff’s Department, in partnership with community groups and service providers.

It’s all part of a larger push to close the aging Men’s Central Jail. That same ODR report said it could take up to two years to close Men’s Central Jail, but the county has yet to offer a concrete timeline.

Organizers say the current county budget proposal does not go far enough to address the need for more mental health beds while “deprioritizing” the L.A. County Sheriff’s budget.

“The reality is that there is a crisis in our jails, there’s a crisis in our communities and this budget does not scale the solution at the scale of the crisis,” said Mark-Anthony Clayton-Johnson, Executive Director of Dignity and Power Now.

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A 2020 RAND study found that “an estimated 61 percent of the jail mental health population were likely appropriate candidates for diversion.”

Clayton-Johnson and other activists at the rally Wednesday pointed to the success of ODR, which has launched successful programs to divert people with serious mental illness and substance use issues from jail.

Amber Sam said she was incarcerated at the Century Regional Detention Facility (L.A. County’s women’s jail) just two months ago after a probation violation. Thanks to support from the Essie Justice Group and ODR, Sam said she’s now housed, working and in mental health therapy for the last few weeks.

“I’ve never had counseling before,” Sam said after speaking at the rally. “So I see the difference in just my everyday quality of life now. Just being able to have somebody to vent to... is very helpful.”

She wants to see the county invest less in the sheriff’s department and more in the programs that have offered her care instead of a cell.

A motion from L.A. County Supervisor Holly Mitchell that’s yet to be voted on by the Board calls for the county to come up with “funding recommendations for increasing capacity by at least 3,600 beds for community-based mental healthcare,” among other recommendations.

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the L.A. County Chief Executive Office said the recommended budget “includes a new infusion of $30 million in ongoing funding for the Office of Diversion and Reentry.”

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