LA County jails to be under court oversight for mentally ill

AP News
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Posted: Aug 05, 2015 5:24 PM

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The U.S. Department of Justice has reached a settlement agreement with Los Angeles County and its Sheriff's Department that will bring its jails under court oversight to address the treatment of mentally ill inmates.

The settlement agreement was filed Wednesday along with a complaint alleging a pattern or practice of inadequate mental health care and excessive force in the jails that violate inmates' constitutional rights.

Once the agreement is approved in federal court, it will be overseen by an independent monitor and team of mental health and corrections experts.

It requires reforms such as new training, improved records keeping and communication between custody and mental health staff to prevent and respond to suicides and self-inflicted injuries. The agreement also expands measures against excessive force that were required in a prior class-action lawsuit, including improvements in leadership, policies, training, data collection and analysis, and grievance procedures.

The Sheriff's Department, which manages the largest jail system in the nation, has already started to implement many of the measures in the agreement. "The settlement agreement avoids protracted litigation and provides a blue print for durable reform," U.S. Attorney Eileen M. Decker said in a statement.

The agreement is the culmination of nearly a decade of investigation by the Justice Department into the county's jails.

The Justice Department originally opened its investigation in 1996 and found constitutional deficiencies related to the treatment of mentally ill prisoners, suicide prevention and excessive force.

In 2002, the Justice Department entered into a memorandum of agreement with the county and the Sheriff to address these issues. But in 2014, the Justice Department concluded in a letter to the county that the Sheriff's Department was still failing in those areas.

The Los Angeles County jails house 15,000 to 19,000 prisoners on a daily basis and an average of 4,000 suffer from a mental illness — more than the number of patients in the California State Hospital system — and is not staffed or designed for the therapeutic care of those in custody, Sheriff Jim McDonnell said in a statement.

McDonnell, who was elected sheriff in November, said he welcomes outside eyes on the department and that the agreement is an "opportunity to be on the leading edge of reform."

"For far too long, the County Board of Supervisors turned a blind eye to evidence of savage abuse by deputies and failure to provide even minimally adequate treatment to inmates with mental illness, even after presented with 2008 and 2010 ACLU reports that specifically outlined many of the same problems this agreement seeks to fix," said Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California, in a statement. "This oversight ... will finally bring much needed change."