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Op-ed: Students should scrutinize actions or lack thereof of district attorney candidate

UCLA students have the power to make an informed decision over voting for a new Los Angeles County District Attorney that can take action on mental health in LA. (Daily Bruin file photo)

By Suzanne Dombkowski and Amanda Dworkin

November 19, 2019 11:37 pm

This post was updated Nov. 20 at 11:43 a.m.

Los Angeles County government may feel a world away to students in the bubble of UCLA.

But its politics hit closer to home than they think. And students are more important than they know in the upcoming county elections – especially when it comes to the election for district attorney.

In November 2020, the current LA County district attorney, Jackie Lacey, is up for reelection against reform-minded candidates such as Joseph Iniguez, a Los Angeles deputy DA who drew attention to the nonexistent mental health training his office provides, and George Gascón, a former DA of San Francisco who criticizes the disparity between daily jail bookings and diversion in LA.

Their points focus on what will be one of the most pressing platforms in this election: the criminalization of mental health. This affects UCLA students more than they realize – as individuals, academics, LA County citizens and California state taxpayers.

In her most recent op-ed in The Hill, Lacey correctly lays out many realities of the criminalization of mental illness. She states the criminal justice system needs to offer more compassionate treatment for people with mental illness. She correctly notes that jail exacerbates mental illness, and adds that people often find themselves rearrested when turned away from medical and social services because of their criminal records. Lacey even cites the outrageously high cost of jailing people compared to supportive community housing, where there’s a higher chance of recovery.

And while Lacey presents herself as an advocate for people with mental illness, her words don’t match her actions.

Lacey must embrace reform and follow through on her promise to support diversion and mental health treatment, rather than continue to sacrifice this vulnerable community’s ability to recover in order to maintain the status quo of incarceration.

But regardless of her actions in the next year, the student body has a part to play in electing a reform-minded DA.

Lacey’s op-ed, as well as her office’s “A Blueprint for Change,” which outlines a commitment to divert individuals with mental illness out of legal settings and into treatment programs, both make it clear that she’s well-aware of the adverse effects of the criminal justice system she is charged with overseeing.

But when faced with the choice between the status quo and reform, she has repeatedly forsaken the people she serves. Lacey ignored the importance of a 40-hour crisis intervention training for officers, which covers defusion techniques that would serve as an alternative to their usual combative style. Instead, she developed an alternative, abridged 16-hour training, supposedly to avoid burdening law enforcement agencies.

This policy choice threatens the lives of homeless individuals with mental illness – the very citizens who frequently encounter police, and who Lacey claims to champion. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, at least 20% of homeless people have a serious mental illness, which makes them especially vulnerable to police attention that often traps them in a dangerous cycle between police encounters and incarceration.

UCLA students experience the adverse effects of homelessness and mental illness every day in their communities. A survey shows that one in five Los Angeles community college students have been homeless at some point in their lives and, according to the World Health Organization, one in four Americans will experience a mental illness in their lifetime.

Counseling and Psychological Services’ short-term service model does not provide adequate long-term psychotherapy or continuity of care for students managing persistent mental illnesses. Therefore, Lacey’s choice to limit crisis intervention training and perpetuate the cycle of incarceration and homelessness has the capacity to affect us all – if not personally then through our taxpayer dollars, with around $75,560 being spent per year in California to jail each inmate without adequate health care.

Additionally, Lacey has been largely silent on statewide legislation aimed at decriminalizing mental illness. In 2018, the state legislature passed Assembly Bill 1810, establishing a pretrial diversion program that allowed a select few defendants to undergo mental health treatment.

Generally, diversion programs allow certain defendants with mental illness to be treated in community care programs or other supervised settings outside of jail or prison. Lacey made no significant comments when AB 1810 was passed.

Yet, she appeared on a conservative talk show to declare the bill would “clog up courts with a lot of frivolous claims.” She didn’t mention that LA’s jails are overcrowded with people struggling with mental illness, an omission that suggested a lack of concern about jails being unconducive to recovery. Instead, she encouraged talk show listeners to demand that their representatives amend AB 1810 to further restrict who could receive diversion.

Lacey is right that the legal system takes an extremely problematic approach to mental health. But words aren’t enough — she must also walk the walk and commit to actually implementing the recommendations in her office’s blueprint. Taking these steps is the only way for Lacey to begin decriminalizing mental illness in LA and become an advocate for mental health that she claims to be.

Regardless of Lacey’s next move, students have the power of their votes. We must take notice of Lacey’s actions since her election in 2012 and those in her forthcoming year in office. We simply cannot afford to reelect an LA DA who is not willing to back up words with action.

Amanda Dworkin and Suzanne Dombkowski are second-year students in the David J. Epstein Program in Public Interest Law and Policy specialization at the UCLA School of Law. They currently study the intersections of race, class and disability with the criminal justice system.

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