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L.A. County Jails Must|Address Mental Health

LOS ANGELES (CN) — A federal judge Tuesday refused to dismiss claims that Los Angeles County violates mentally ill inmates' constitutional rights by failing to provide them with adequate services before releasing them from jail.

U.S. District Judge Dean Pregerson denied the county's motion for a judgment on the pleadings, allowing eight people who suffer from severe mental illnesses - including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and manic depression — to press their claims that county jails' discharge procedures violate the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Constitution.

Teresa Powers et al. filed a motion to intervene in September last year after the Department of Justice entered into a joint settlement with the county over abuses in its jails.

One of the intervenors' attorneys, Alisa Hartz, said she was "really pleased" with Pregerson's ruling.

"The county's jail discharge planning policies are a homeless manufacturing machine, and requiring the county to connect mentally disabled people with services upon their release from jail is the first step to ending the cycle," Hartz said.

She said prisoners with mental disabilities have been released from jail during the early hours of the morning without medications, prescriptions, and no means to obtain housing.

Her clients had been "in and out" of the Twin Towers Correctional Facility, Men's Central Jail, Lynwood Women's Jail and others, Hartz said in an interview.

One intervenor, Derrick Thomas, who is schizophrenic, was released in the middle of the night without any money and with only a T-shirt on his back. "He had to sleep on top of and under cardboard for multiple weeks while he was trying to find housing and get himself situated after being released from jail," Hartz said.

In their motion to intervene, the plaintiffs took issue with a paragraph in the settlement agreement on how the seriously mentally ill should be discharged from jails, which the motion called the "most important stage of the county's jail-to-streets-to-jail cycle."

"Left uncorrected, these discharge provisions will lead to pervasive ADA [American with Disabilities Act] violations," the motion states.

Pointing to at least three violations of law, the plaintiffs said the settlement agreement failed to accommodate inmates with personality disorders, substance abuse and dependence disorders, dementia or developmental disabilities, and excludes mentally ill inmates from discharge services if they are jailed for seven days or fewer.

Under the agreement, jail officials are required to hand out a drug prescription on referral. But the motion called that plan "meaningless for many people with serious mental disabilities because, due to their disabilities, they have no realistic hope of navigating to those who can fulfill their medication or service needs."

The intervenors also took aim at the plan for allowing jail officials to refer inmates to mental health services without confirming that the providers are available, and allowing mentally ill inmates to be released to mental institutions or hospitals rather than less-restrictive community settings.

"As a result, under the terms of the settlement, the county will be able to continue its current practices of discharging mentally disabled individuals from the county jails without their medication and without ensuring that they obtain desperately needed medical and psychiatric services to ameliorate their mental illnesses," the motion stated. "Severely mentally disabled people will continue to be left to wander and attempt to survive our community's meanest streets."

The county argued that the court should throw out the claims because the eight people lack standing to intervene.

Pregerson disagreed, noting that some of the eight intervenors had been jailed repeatedly, and that "others have been arrested hundreds of times."

They all "suffer from at least one mental illness, and most have histories of substance abuse," Pregerson said, adding that it appeared they had often been jailed because they are mentally ill.

"Intervenors have then been released onto the streets, often in a more vulnerable, less stable state than when they entered the jail system," Pregerson wrote, and there "appears to be little doubt that there is a credible threat that intervenors will again find themselves incarcerated."

The county also argued that plaintiffs lacked standing because the specter of injury is tied to the intervenors breaking the law and returning to jail.

But Pregerson noted that while the former inmates had been jailed for petty offenses like shoplifting, fare-dodging and drug offenses, it was unclear if any of them had been criminally convicted.

"In addition, criminal activities of the type described above may be closely entwined with mental health issues and potential defenses related thereto," the judge wrote in the 18-page order.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the intervenors make clear that they were denied adequate access to state-provided discharge planning services, Pregerson said.

Hartz said she is encouraging the county to "move forward" and modify its discharge planning services for mentally ill inmates. She said the intervenors will continue to press the county through the courts or in settlement discussions.

Los Angeles Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Nicole Nishida told Courthouse News that the county is reviewing Pregerson's ruling and considering its options.

"Mentally ill jail inmates and homelessness are highly complex issues that require a multi-faceted response in order to adequately address them. The sheriff is committed to working with his local, state, federal and private sector partners in order to develop long-term solutions to the mentally ill and homeless issues facing our county," Nishida wrote in an email.

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