This LA Jail Program Is A Huge Success. So Why Can’t It Take On More People?
It’s one thing to talk about keeping people out of jail and another to accomplish it.
A six-year-old special Los Angeles County program to divert people from jails is now overwhelmingly considered a success.
Run by the Office of Diversion and Reentry — called ODR Housing — the initiative has:
- Diverted more than 3,700 people with serious mental health disorders, physical illnesses and/or substance abuse issues from jail.
- Of those, more than 2,000 are currently in some type of housing. They’re also provided supportive services that include a team of medical professionals, a therapist and a caseworker for life.
Despite the glowing statistics — and the dire need — ODR Housing has not been able to take on any new clients in over a year. It has maxed out its funding and there’s no money to expand the program in the proposed county budget for the next fiscal year.
“We’re sort of cursed by our own success,” said Susanne Blossom, a public defender who works exclusively with ODR clients.
A 2019 RAND Corporation study found that 90% of people surveyed who were enrolled in the program had stable housing after six months, 74% after 12 months. Even more notable, RAND found that 86% had no new felony convictions after 12 months.
“It's so effective, and that is why it is currently closed,” said Garrett Miller, a board member with the union representing the L.A. County Public Defender's Office
The county provided the program with funding for 2,200 beds; it hit that mark a year ago, and there’s currently no money to expand the program in the proposed county budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
It’s frustrating for those involved with the program, since a 2020 RAND study found that more than 60% of the L.A. jails’ mental health population — right now that’s roughly 3,600 people — are candidates for diversion.
Costs Are Rising
Meanwhile, costs are rising to maintain those who are already in the program.
“This program is doing more than it originally set out to do,” ODR Medical Director Kristen Ochoa said in an email. “We continue to focus on keeping costs down so we can provide the services necessary to support our clients and ensure their success.”
In response to our questions, the county CEO’s office issued a statement that did not directly address ODR Housing, while noting that the proposed budget contains $30 million to address ODR’s overall “structural deficit” of $60 million.
“We know there is more work to be done in this area,” the statement said, adding that the county is “committed to identifying more resources” to reduce the agency’s deficit.
County Supervisor Hilda Solis said in a statement the county should seek out state, federal and philanthropic funding for ODR’s various programs.
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl welcomed the proposed infusion of $30 million for ODR, and said in a statement that the county will “also continue to expand an extensive array of needed programs and services,” such as pretrial services and other diversion programs.
ODR is currently undergoing an audit to “ensure that proper assessment and accountability measures have been implemented,” according to the county’s audit committee.
‘It’s So Frustrating’
Attorneys on the front lines however, are baffled at why such a crucial and successful program remains without the means to expand.
“It's so frustrating, I think, for us to have all these clients, and know that there's a very viable avenue for success for these clients and [ODR] just doesn’t have enough funding to do that,” said Miller, the public defender.
He estimates that he referred about a half dozen people into ODR Housing in the months before it hit its limit. And demand for the program, he said, is overwhelming.
“It is so well known that many clients will come in, and they have heard success stories, and they want that,” Miller said.
This is going beyond negligence at this point. This is intentional harm to people with mental health needs.
The alternatives aren’t good. For most people, it's prison. Some might be lucky enough to receive services through another county program, but that likely won’t meet all the complex needs of their client base, he said.
Community organizers working on jail reform are also unhappy about the proposed budget’s lack of funding to expand ODR Housing.
“This is going beyond negligence at this point,” said Ivette Alé-Ferlito with Dignity and Power Now. “This is intentional harm to people with mental health needs.”
Alé-Ferlito argues the county could easily find the money to beef up ODR Housing, for example by redirecting money away from the massive Sheriff’s Department budget.
‘If You Want A Fresh Start, This Is It’
Judge Karla Kerlin hears cases involving ODR every Wednesday in a courtroom tucked away on the third floor of the criminal courthouse in downtown L.A.
On a Wednesday morning earlier this month, Kerlin addressed a man sitting silently in front of her. He was handcuffed and wearing a blue jail uniform.
The man’s time in ODR Housing hasn’t been smooth sailing. He took off at one point and picked up another felony, which was reduced to a misdemeanor.
Kerlin is giving him another shot.
“If you want a fresh start, this is it,” she said kindly. “Stay in compliance, and you could stay in the program.”
When you see the transformation of folks, once they have care and attention and medicine, it is absolutely remarkable,.
Watching the proceedings, ODR Medical Director Ochoa said it’s “really important to us … to continue to give people many chances.”
She said the man would be released soon, and that her staffers would pick him up — they do that with nearly every client — take him home, and connect him with the care he needs.
“We need to provide care indefinitely to people who require it,” Ochoa said. “Even when they get re-arrested, we try to bring them back.”
She’s an enthusiastic advocate for ODR Housing.
“When you see the transformation of folks, once they have care and attention and medicine, it is absolutely remarkable,” Ochoa said. “It is something so compelling that … can transform hearts and minds … this has to be the right answer.”
When she starts talking about family reunification, her voice thickens. For a moment, she’s lost in emotion.
“A lot of times it's hard for families to stay connected hen someone is so sick,” Ochoa said. “To see people reconnect with their friends and families, and just live meaningful lives again … it's why we do this work.”
‘We’re Fixing A Problem For The Whole State’
There’s also the financial reality that it’s much cheaper to house a person than incarcerate them.
Ochoa said the county’s program costs about $150 a day per person, vs. $800 a day in the mental health section of the jail.
“We do so well that we’re fixing a problem for the whole state,” Blossom, the public defender, said, adding that the costs are also higher to treat someone’s health concerns in prison than through ODR.
If I ever need any help, I know who to come to — I just come right down the stairs.
Blossom said if her colleague’s caseloads are any indication — as well the daily onslaught of Nextdoor posts demanding a police response to unhoused people experiencing mental health concerns — the need for the program couldn’t be greater.
She offered up that one of her colleagues has about 25 clients who are currently incompetent to stand trial out of an active caseload of roughly 40 cases.
Once they can essentially recognize the judge, Blossom said, “there’s nowhere to send them other than prison.”
“I’m not overstating it to say that it is devastating,” she said.
‘You Want To Live Nice, You Want To Live Safe’
One recent afternoon, I got a tour and saw artwork on the walls and clean communal spaces with colorful plastic furniture. The building’s apartment doors are painted green and line outdoor hallways graced with an ocean breeze.
Raquel Chavez works in the building as a program manager. “I would build more buildings like this,” she said, when I asked her what she would do if the program had more funding.
Chavez said that outside of housing, being able to fund the full cost of the work she and her colleagues do is also a challenge. “It is providing some pretty wonderful services for our clients,” she said.
In a common room, Jasmine Jones, 30, and her neighbor Christopher Hodge, 35, are engrossed in a painting activity. Staff with The People Concern — one of about 30 service providers working with ODR clients — wear red lanyards and chat with clients while they paint.
I feel comfortable. I feel welcomed. And I feel loved.
“You want to live nice, you want to live safe,” said Hodge, who said that a condition of living here is that you need to be taking your medications. He said he has a clinically diagnosed mental health disorder, but declined to provide details.
The biggest chunk of ODR’s clients across all its programs — 40% — are Black, like Hodge and Jones, which is similar to their proportion of the jail population. That’s also reflected in the resident makeup at the Long Beach apartment building.
Hodge’s family lives close by in Compton and with treatment he’s back to playing with his nephews and showing his mom around his apartment. He’s in regular contact with an on-site therapist.
“I just thank God that I’m here, and that I’m getting my health through my services,” Hodge said, adding that he’s been looking for a job.
Not all clients, of course, do as well as Hodge, or get such nice housing.
When I visited ODR’s criminal court in downtown L.A., one man explained to Judge Kerlin that he felt unsafe at his housing placement.
Another person charged with a serious felony did not want to take the long-acting injectable antipsychotic drugs that ODR’s doctors had recommended and were a mandatory condition to receive services.
“We’re not going to negotiate the long-acting injection — that is for sure a given,” Kerlin said. The alternative, she told him, would likely be three years in prison, given the severity of his case.
The man still declined the injections.
A 2021 RAND study indicated that ODR Housing clients are mostly happy, but there is a “subset of clients who do not successfully advance through the program, especially those who do not do well in interim housing due to substance use and/or mental health problems.”
‘I Took A Couple Of Steps Up The Ladder’
For Jasmine Jones, the opportunity for housing and services through ODR Housing has been a lifesaver. She said she was previously chronically homeless, her schizoaffective bipolar disorder undiagnosed.
“I got labeled as something that people knew nothing about,” she said. “They treated me like I was nothing on the streets.”
Now, “if I ever need any help, I know who to come to — I just come right down the stairs” to find the therapists and social workers who help her take her meds and track how she’s doing, Jones said.
“I feel comfortable. I feel welcomed. And I feel loved,” she said.
Jones has no plans to leave her Long Beach apartment. “I took a couple of steps up the ladder, I didn't look back. I blossomed into a flower, and I like it,” she said.
Jones told me she’s growing alongside her neighbors — a group of people who now sit and paint easter eggs and artwork together on the Thursday afternoon before the holiday.
It’s a group of people Jones now counts as family.