Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey this week announced an expansion of her office’s efforts to help people living with mental illness in the criminal justice system.
The Mental Health Division brings together deputy district attorneys whose cases involve defendants who have been declared incompetent to stand trial or are seeking alternative sentences due to their mental illness.
The new division – the first of its kind in the prosecutor’s office in California and, possibly, the nation – was established effective Wednesday, Jan. 23.
Since her election in 2012, District Attorney Lacey has worked diligently to address the needs of those with mental illness. She formed what would become the county’s Mental Health Advisory Board which created the “Blueprint for Change,” a 2015 report that mapped out a path to address issues within the mental health and justice systems.
In response to its recommendations, District Attorney Lacey has provided free mental health awareness training to more than 1,400 first responders from smaller police agencies. The training shows first responders how to safely de-escalate encounters with people in a mental health crisis, improving the safety of the officers and the public.
“Our goal is to protect the public and to assist people in getting the mental health and other services they need to be productive members of our community,” District Attorney Lacey said. “We also want to make sure that jails and prisons are reserved for the most serious and violent offenders.”
The new division builds on District Attorney Lacey’s mission to seek a more just and effective criminal justice system for people living with mental illness and will seek to expand treatment and other services for people whose untreated mental illness historically has resulted in longer periods of incarceration and mental deterioration.
The Mental Health Division will serve as a resource to deputy district attorneys faced with questions about potential diversion cases and motions made under Senate Bill 1810, the new pre-trial mental health diversion law which allows those who are struggling with mental illness to enter an 18-month mental health program before charges are filed against them and therefore can avoid conviction. The new division will also provide training to attorneys and first responders, advocate for more community-based mental health resources and pursue legislation to enact meaningful criminal justice reform in California.
An important internal policy component of this mental health division is the directive that allows deputy district attorneys to consider a defendant’s mental health when deciding if they should participate in a diversion program.
“With this policy, I am encouraging my lawyers to make courageous decisions and do the right thing,” District Attorney Lacey said. “We must make informed decisions to ensure public safety and help another human being in crisis.”
In 2016, District Attorney Lacey appointed the nation’s first mental health liaison for a local prosecutorial agency. The liaison worked in collaboration with a variety of stakeholders to address ways to safely help people in a mental health crisis stay out of the criminal justice system.