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The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors recently signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) creating an unprecedented collaboration between the board, the Los Angeles Superior Court, prosecutors, defenders and mental health providers. The collaboration will create a pilot program offering a diversion/alternative sentencing option for low-level offenders who are seriously mentally ill and chronically homeless.
The program is aimed at breaking the cycle between the street, emergency room, courts and jail, and will place eligible defendants in permanent supportive housing, where they can receive the services they need in a safe and caring environment. Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, 3rd District, recently helped launch the pilot program at the Van Nuys courthouse, and was joined by Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey, Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer, Judge David Wesley, as well as public defenders and mental-health professionals.
“For chronically homeless and seriously mentally ill defendants, diversion and alternative sentencing programs are an intelligent way to deal with misdemeanors and some low level felonies,” Yaroslavsky said. “Instead of taking up jail space, they should be housed and given treatment to address the issues that contributed to their transgressions in the first place.”
The program will initially be available to offenders in Van Nuys, San Fernando, Malibu, portions of Agoura Hills and Calabasas, and at Universal Citywalk. The pilot program will serve up to 50 people annually, and may later be expanded.
Los Angeles County currently funds mental health treatment and custodial care for more than 3,500 inmates with mental illness who are housed in the Los Angeles County Jail. Diversion programs can lead to better outcomes for people with mental illness, Yaroslavsky said.
The pilot program will divert chronically homeless and seriously mentally ill adults from the traditional fines, probation and incarceration typically imposed for misdemeanor and low-level felony offenses, and place them on a path to secure permanent, supportive housing and consistent treatment of their mental illnesses.
Qualifying misdemeanor offenders will be offered an opportunity to participate in the program at the initial arraignment and plea stage. If they elect to participate, they will be released to San Fernando Valley Community Mental Health Center, placed in bridge or transitional housing, and offered a variety of support services.
Individuals who successfully complete the 90-day diversion program by paying restitution, complying with requirements, and committing no new offenses, will have their charges dismissed.
Qualifying felons will be required to plead guilty or no contest to charges and complete an 18-month diversion program. For felons who successfully complete the program, in certain cases the court will terminate probation early and dismiss the case. In other cases, the negotiated sentence will stand, but defendants may seek dismissal later , after successfully completing 36 months of formal probation.
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