Settlement calls for overhaul of mental health care in LA County Jails

Man sits in cramped jail cell
Agreement to Reduce Suicides

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department must take a variety of steps to reduce suicides in county jails, improve mental health treatment, and reduce the use of excessive force against people with mental illnesses, under a new comprehensive 58-page settlement announced August 5 with the Department of Justice.

“This historic settlement represents a renewed commitment by the county and Sheriff (Jim) McDonnell to provide constitutionally adequate care for prisoners with serious mental illness,” Deputy Assistant Attorney General Kappelhoff said in a news release. “The agreement also puts in place a structure that will help turn around a persistent culture in which the use of excessive force on prisoners was sometimes tolerated.”

The agreement comes one year after the DOJ Civil Rights Division released a scathing report, accusing the Sheriff’s Department of falling woefully short of its obligations under a 2002 Memorandum of Agreement between the parties, which calls for federal officials to inspect and issue reports on conditions at the facilities every six months.

In 2013, the county jail system, which houses more than 19,000 inmates, saw a spike in suicides, from four to 10. An estimated 20 percent of the inmates in the system have a mental illness.

Under the agreement, the Sheriff’s Department agrees to systematically overhaul its evaluation procedures for determining inmate’s mental health needs as they enter its facilities, and for providing appropriate services thereafter.

In addition, staff must undergo new training for crisis intervention and interacting with people with mental illness. New documentation requirements and accountability measures are aimed at oversight efforts and punish any staff that abuses or otherwise fails to provide necessary services for inmates.

The County is in the process of building a new 4,860-bed jail, designed to provide more resources for providing mental health services. A court-appointed independent monitor will oversee the agreement’s implementation.

The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California must still approve the agreement.

“This agreement presents an opportunity to close the book on the challenges of the past and to write a new chapter in the treatment and care of those suffering from mental illness who end up in our jails and will eventually return to our community,” Sheriff McDonnell told the Los Angeles Times.

The settlement comes four months after the DOJ and the Los Angeles Sheriff Department reached a comprehensive settlement to improve wheelchair access in county jails.