Primary Partner Agencies: Los Angeles City Attorney, DMH, Public Defender/Alternate Public Defender, Courts, LASD, DMH, DHS, Public Health (SAPC-CENS), Project 180.
Overview: In June of 2019, after we partnered with the Office of the Public Defender to apply to and receive funding from the MacArthur Foundation, we implemented a pilot to divert persons suffering from mental illness charged with misdemeanor offenses. The pilot follows the requirements set forth under Penal Code Section 1001.36, which allows for a pretrial diversion if all of the following requirements are met:
1. The defendant suffers from a mental disorder identified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (with some disorder exceptions);
2. His or her mental disorder was a significant factor in the commission of the charged offense;
3. In the opinion of a qualified mental health expert, the defendant’s symptoms of the mental disorder motivating the criminal behavior would respond to mental health treatment (the recommendation must include a treatment plan);
4. The defendant consents to diversion and waives the defendant’s right to a speedy trial;
5. The defendant agrees to comply with treatment as a condition of diversion; and,
6. The court is satisfied that the defendant will not pose an unreasonable risk of danger to public safety (PC 1170.18) if treated in the community.
The resources available for misdemeanor defendants to get assessed and given a treatment plan are extremely scarce. In addition, the prolonged period of time it takes to get assessed and placed – assuming a resource is found – makes mental health diversion very unappealing for most misdemeanor defendants. This is especially true given the fact that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department immediately releases a defendant from custody if he is sentenced to 180 days of county jail or less. This has a cyclical effect – the defendant, who is usually homeless, takes the offer and is released from custody back to the street only to be rearrested and end up right back in court/custody. The recidivism rate amongst this population is overwhelming – with some estimates as high as 90%. The MacArthur pilot was developed with the hopes of providing a solution to this problem.
The grant received from the MacArthur Foundation is used to fund a licensed clinical social worker (“LCSW”) (through DMH) and a case manager (through Project 180). The LCSW and the case manager are embedded in the misdemeanor arraignment court at the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Courts Building (“CCB”) and complete an in-court assessment (with the help of access to previous mental health records - if they exist), fill out a form motion for mental health diversion pursuant to Penal Code Section 1001.36 and match the defendant with a live-in treatment program. The participant is picked up from custody as soon as possible (usually within 48 hours or less). The participants return to court for progress reports once a month. The grant also provides resources for toiletries, clothes, transportation and other items to help the participants integrate back into society. This model is based on successful programs throughout the country.
The pilot is meant to be a collaborative – not adversarial - process. It is important that defense attorneys and prosecutors are properly trained and view the process as a team effort as the defense and prosecution must agree on which cases to jointly recommend for diversion under the pilot.
Program Success: To date, the MacArthur Pilot Team has assessed a total of 462 defendants and accepted 125 into the pilot program. Of the total accepted into the program, 70 participants enrolled and 39 of those are still active in the program for an overall success rate of 55%.
Over 50% of the participants are homeless. Even more are at risk of being homeless.
Only approximately five of the current participants have picked up a new arrest/case – which is only a 13% recidivism rate amongst current participants. Most of them have been reassessed and placed back into the program with no further problems. One of the participants has a current felony and the felony judge is going to allow the participant to complete the program for the felony.
Three participants have completed program. When a participant completes the program, there is a mini ceremony in court and the Judge presents the participant with a certificate. The participant speaks about their experience in the program if they so choose. The statements of the graduated participants truly speak to the potential for rehabilitation if given the proper resources. Comments made by graduating participants include: "I feel awake." "I have confidence now." "I feel like I can do it this time." One of the graduates was able to be reunited with his family because he was doing so well.
Pilot Expansion: Many of the defendants assessed for the program are too sick at arraignment to be placed in available live in treatment facilities. Most of these people are more stable and/or medicated by the pretrial date if they stay in custody. Based on this information, and the desire to approve more people for the program, the Partner Agencies requested additional staffing for CCB from the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health (“DMH”). Specifically, we requested that three additional LCSWs and three additional case managers be placed at CCB to help with assessments in the pretrial courts, as well as, to help with any emergency issues that come up with defendants suffering from mental illness. DMH countered with a proposal to place one LCSW and one case manager at both the Airport Courthouse and the Van Nuys Courthouse. The expansion will be funded by DMH.