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Given chance to avoid jail and criminal charges, mentally ill, addicted and homeless people in LA pass

Kevin Rector, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

The largest factor, he said, is the court’s pandemic-related decision to do away with cash bail for people charged with minor offenses like the ones included in the diversion program. Under that policy, people who might have been unable to afford bail and so remained in jail before the pandemic now are released quickly to await trial.

For many of the people eligible for diversion, a quick release — even if it leaves criminal charges hanging over their heads — is more attractive than entering into a monthslong treatment program, Pitcher said.

“The individuals who are brought in believe they will be released very quickly, which they are,” Pitcher said. “The court’s zero-bail practice is wreaking havoc on this program.”

To a much lesser degree, Pitcher said people turning down diversion have expressed doubt that prosecutors in Gascón’s office will even file charges against them on the minor offenses for which they were arrested, or that, if they do, they also won’t seek bail in accordance with the office’s more lenient policies under Gascón.

It’s likely that some of those eligible for the diversion program would have been released without bail before the pandemic rules went into effect, but Pitcher said it is unclear how many.

In a statement to the Los Angeles Times, Gascón’s office said it is “unconstitutional to use unaffordable bail or pretrial incarceration simply to coerce people into treatment,” and that officials in L.A. should be looking to expand treatment alternatives “instead of relying on the criminal legal system to provide health care, substance use disorder treatment and housing assistance, as it will never solve those problems.”

 

Advocates for people suffering from mental illness and addiction and others who study such programs argue there are many reasons why people may not want to commit to a diversion program with extensive time commitments, particularly when it is run by a law enforcement agency.

Antionette Dozier, a senior attorney with the Western Center on Law and Poverty, said people may decline diversion because of work or childcare issues, or because of concerns that such programs won’t be conducted in a culturally sensitive way.

And Gary Blasi, a professor emeritus at UCLA law school and counsel to the Western Center, said whether such programs work “always depends on whether, from the point of view of the person involved, the alternative offered is better.”

Although many homeless people will accept some offers of housing, they often don’t want to be placed in settings where they have little or no privacy or autonomy, Blasi wrote in an email to The Times. Many poor people, he said, “have the experience of being offered ‘services’ of little value that consume more of the recipient’s time and energy better spent dealing with survival needs on their own.”

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