Department of Justice Fails to Hold LA County Accountable
By Joseph P. Charney
On August 19th, Federal Judge Dean Pregerson called up the matter of the United States of America versus Los Angeles County. The case concerns the County’s obligation under a 2015 Consent Decree to provide constitutional care and housing for thousands of inmates suffering serious mental illness. The Hearing centered around a joint status report wherein US attorneys detailed the facts that demonstrated that the County was “far from achieving compliance with three remaining provisions of the Consent Decree”. Those provisions mandated sufficient mental health housing, inpatient treatment capacity, and structured out of cell time.
The report details how nearly 50 percent of inmates waited longer than permitted for adequate mental health housing. This lack of housing has led the County to place seriously mentally ill inmates in unsafe conditions at Men’s Central Jail, a jail the Board of Supervisors intends to demolish.
Los Angeles County admits non-compliance, but blames a lack of medical staff, insufficient and inadequate housing facilities, as well as the extraordinary increase in the number of mentally ill inmates since the agreement was signed in 2015.
The County was in effect pleading “guilty” to its failure to provide inmates suffering serious mental illness constitutional care. After seven years of non-compliance, this latest appearance should have been the moment when the Department of Justice (DOJ) sought sanctions against LA County for its persistent failures to abide by its constitutional obligations. These excuses for non-compliance have always been without merit. Compliance always required a larger more appropriate custodial treatment facility. When the Consent Decree was signed in 2015, the Board had already spent millions of dollars developing the plans to build such a facility and had the means to fund it. Such a facility would have allowed for the safe closure of Men’s Central Jail (MCJ). A newly constituted Board of Supervisors chose to waste millions of taxpayer dollars and years of planning when it decided not to build the planned facility. Today, approximately 4 billion dollars is directed specifically toward matters relating to mental health while only a fraction of that amount has been directed towards “Consent Decree Compliance”.
Notwithstanding its failure to comply with the Consent Decree, the County has settled a lawsuit with the LA Alliance for Human Rights that requires it to greatly increase its mental health outreach staff and treatment beds for the homeless within five years. One hopes the County fulfills its obligations under this agreement. But in that it has failed to provide constitutionally required care pursuant to a 2015 Consent Decree, all County promises related to mental health treatment must be met with skepticism.
It has become increasingly clear that LA County Supervisors are in no hurry to provide required inmate care knowing that inadequate inmate treatment and suffering is hidden from the public eye. In addition, the County receives no pressure from advocacy groups which have directed all their efforts to the leveling of Men’s Central Jail with no replacement, and the release of thousands of inmates to non-custodial facilities.
No advocates appeared before Judge Pregerson to intervene and lobby for adequate housing and treatment of inmates. No reporters were present to cover this important story, and without their reporting, the proceedings could have just as well occurred behind closed doors. It was unfortunate that no accommodation was made for the public to listen in as was permitted in the past.
During the hearing, Judge Pregerson appeared frustrated by the “kick the can down the road” approach of the US Attorneys, challenging them to set clear goals and deadlines. It did not happen. The DOJ continued to show no inclination to coerce compliance. The County remains secure in the knowledge that it can continue to ignore its own agreement and constitutional obligations without penalty.
Only when the County provides adequate mental health treatment in custodial and non-custodial facilities will it fulfill its responsibility. Coordinating a continuum of care would reduce the numbers of the mentally ill going in and out of jail until they commit serious and violent crime. It could help reduce street violence that the untreated mentally ill perpetrate on each other and upon the general public. County residents will only secure the benefits of increased mental health treatment if and when the County Board of Supervisors abides by its 2015 Agreement and expands its non-custodial treatment facilities as well. Thus far there is little evidence they intend to do so.