We Must Do Better’

USC Gould School of Law • April 20, 2016
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 L.A. County D.A. Jackie Lacey ’82 addresses mental illness and the criminal justice system

By: Anne Bergman

For L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey ’82, how the criminal justice system currently handles people with mental illnesses results in a moral question: Are we punishing people who are sick?

“People with mental illness who end up in the criminal justice system are stigmatized and blamed for their condition,” Lacey told an audience of mental health professionals, advocates, scholars, consumers and law enforcement officers gathered at USC Gould School of Law. “We must do better,” she said. “I feel that this is the issue I’m supposed to be working on.”

The two-day event, “Beating Mental Illness: A Dialogue on Race, Gender, Disability Stereotypes in Use of Force Cases,” was sponsored by PRISM, the Initiative for the Study of Race, Gender, Sexuality and the Law with the USC Gould Saks Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy, and Ethics. Lacey was the keynote speaker and the inter-disciplinary dialogue was organized by Gould Professors Camille Gear Rich and Elyn Saks. Rich is the director of PRISM, while Saks is the director of the Saks Institute.

In her address, Lacey highlighted the benefits of safely diverting offenders with mental illness from county jail. “When the conduct of someone with a mental illness turns a situation serious, there are currently two options: Send them either to the emergency room or to jail,” she said. “If jailed, they’ll serve twice the time and then they are dumped onto the street, where 70 percent are re-arrested. In contrast, people who receive care are less prone to recidivism.”

 L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey ’82 highlighted benefits to safely diverting offenders with mental illness from county jail.

To capitalize on a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to more effectively help people with mental illness who are involved in the criminal justice system, Lacey founded a task force, the Criminal Justice Mental Health Advisory Board in 2014. Lacey chairs the board, which is comprised of representatives from governmental agencies and nonprofit organizations throughout Los Angeles County.

Lacey detailed the accomplishments and goals of the task force:

  • Expand the number of mental health courts to increase coordination and collaboration between the criminal justice and mental health systems;
  • Train 500 police officers to have more compassionate and effective interaction with people with mental illness; and
  • Open five urgent care centers as a “pre-booking diversion program” where people with mental illness can be taken for specialized evaluation.

Professor David Meyer, Coordinator of Psychiatry and Criminal Law Training at the USC Institute of Psychiatry, Law, and Behavioral Science, who serves on the task force, told the audience that Lacey has “rapidly generated an immense change in this county. She is responsible for changing how people with mental illness are being treated in the criminal justice system,” Meyer said.

He also noted that as the leader of the nation’s largest local prosecutorial office, Lacey can wield national influence.

Lacey acknowledged that the task force is sparking a “minor revolution” in Los Angeles County, with a population that numbers 10.3 million people. Ultimately, Lacey said that how we treat people with mental illness comes down to the simple idea that, “We should treat people how we would want to be treated if we were in a crisis.”

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