As California implements Governor Brown’s so-called criminal justice realignment program, the state has transferred control of low-level offenders to the counties. That means local law-enforcement agencies are now presented with a new challenge: overseeing an influx of ex-felons with histories of mental illness.
Los Angeles runs the largest county jail in the United States, and since realignment began last October, it’s gotten a lot bigger: the County jail population is up more than 23 percent.
Inmates with mental health problems end up at LA’s Twin Towers Corrections facility. Francesca Anello with the County Mental Health Department oversees inmates serving time there under realignment.
“It used to be that we saw people short term,” she says. “So it was difficult to get them hooked up in the community if they’re going in and out so quickly. And so we’d miss an opportunity sometimes to work with them long-term.”
Anello say that with realignment, more time can be spent with inmates on mental health issues to ensure a smooth re-entry into society.
“We have a team that actually follows people for 30 days in the community to make sure all the supports are in place," she says, "so it’s kind of like a warm handoff, so that they don’t get reincarcerated.”
Under the new system, inmates released in South Los Angeles have 48 hours to report to the county probation department’s hub in Lynwood. That’s where law enforcement and social service agencies coordinate post-release supervision.
Kimberly Tillman, who oversees the operation, says 50 to 75 percent of people the department sees have mental health problems ranging from depression to bipolar disorder to schizophrenia. In the past, former prisoners with mental health problems would be seen at clinics run by the state parole department. Tillman says that’s changed. Now counties are responsible for assessments of each ex-offender.
“We look for mood swings, we look for posture,” she explains. “If you look confused, if you’re fidgeting or agitated. Sometimes we have people who are irate because they haven’t had their medications.”
Tillman says getting ex-cons into mental health treatment improves chances for rehabilitation and protects public safety.
“My fear,” she says, “is that someone in the community will be hurt because one assessment wasn’t complete and we didn’t provide them with the wraparound services that they needed.”
Many ex-offenders with mental health issues will be referred to Project 180, a comprehensive re-entry program in downtown Los Angeles, in the heart of the city’s Skid Row. There hundreds of homeless people clog the sidewalks; outside the building, recovering addicts and users run a daily gauntlet of temptations that includes offers of drugs.
Among the program's clients is Angela Scott, a heavyset woman in her fifties. Scott says she started using drugs back in 1985 when her brother was shot and killed. Scott was in prison for drug possession and was released in December. Under the old system, she would have been on state parole, and violating it might have sent her back to prison.
Now she’s assigned to this one-stop shop where clients get regular counseling and group therapy. It’s a welcome change after more than two decades in and out prison. “To come here to a place, it's like a safe haven,” she says. “It just makes me stronger. I never had any help really, just go to prison. So this time I'm talking, letting it out, letting all the garbage inside, out.”
Across the room, Warrenton Dean recounts his history of gang-related crime. Dean bounced from one state prison to another. Last year he was released in LA, and after talking with a county probation officer, realized he needed help “with my anger management, my coping skills, my life skills, my values and everything." He says, "They told me, 'Hey, if you need the help, we can help. But you gotta help yourself'."
Since realignment took effect, Project 180 has been inundated with new clients.
“While we’re excited about the growth and about being able to expand, I think all of us are a little concerned about how quickly that is happening, and can we make sure what we maintain the quality of care," says Victoria Simon, the executive director.
Simon adds that so far, state funding has been able to cover additional programs, staff and space. She says one benefit of realignment is that her program has almost daily contact with these ex-felons.
“It’s Project 180 staff, not Probation, that knows clients that are doing well, not doing well, the clients that have relapsed, who’s having issues. So we're really the ones notifying probation at this point of who's doing what out there.”
Not that realignment has been problem free. Not all counties have the mental health resources LA has. And even here, some former inmates leave mental health programs without notice -- or they just disappear off the law enforcement radar.
To help keep track of these former prisoners, the LA Police Department shifted 150 cops to realignment duty. Detective Eric Sage is one of them. His concern: losing track of ex-cons who use their mental health status to avoid surveillance by law enforcement.
“If they’re gonna go out and sit in a hospital to hide from us,” says Sage, “we’re not down with that. Obviously if we get them help they’ll be contributing citizens and not slaves to drugs or their own mind.”
The jury is still out on whether counties will do a better job helping ex-offenders with mental health problems than the state did. But one thing seems certain: realignment is encouraging social service agencies to collaborate with local law enforcement in ways they never did before.