Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail, operated by the Los Angeles County Sheriff, on Oct. 3, 2012. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors recently approved the final environmental impact report for the Consolidated Correctional Treatment Facility–otherwise known as the new “mental health jail”. The approval green lights, what opponents to the project are calling “a wasteful spending of over $2.2 billion to build nearly 4,000 new jail cells for an already failing jail system.”

“Los Angeles County is the largest county in the U.S. with the largest jail system in the world,” explained Reform L.A. Jails Campaign Director Jasmyne Cannick.  “Instead of planning on how to keep people out of jail we are planning for people to go to jail.”

But the supervisors don’t quite see it that way. The new facility is meant, they said, to become a national model for in the way medical and mental health services are provided to the growing inmate-patient population in the criminal justice system.

“By embarking on this project, the County is invested in making significant improvements in the delivery of healthcare to its inmate-patients,” supervisors said.

“The proposed facility intends to create a paradigm shift in the way the County cares for inmate-patients, with a focus on treatment and rehabilitation, rather than just incarceration. The proposed facility will provide educational, rehabilitation, and life skills programs that would help rebuild lives, facilitate re-integration into society, and thus reduce recidivism and enhance public safety. The County is also increasingly investing in alternatives to incarceration for eligible individuals, including partnering with community-based mental health programs.”

But why jail, asks Reform members. People suffering from mental illness need more than jail cells.  They need genuine rehabilitative services.

“Most individuals living with mental illness get caught in the criminal justice system after being arrested for low-level offenses like jaywalking, disorderly conduct, trespassing–or charges related to being homeless,” Cannick said.

“We should be diverting these people to treatment and not to police stations for booking. Instead of planning for people suffering from mental illness to be in jail the Board of Supervisors should be studying the correlation between access to mental health care and how systemic changes in access to mental health care can cause a reduction in incarceration.  Going to jail shouldn’t be the only way that people can get treated for their mental illness because when they are finally released they leave behind whatever little access they had to health care in the jail and find themselves right back in the same situation–thus the cycle repeats.”

Though they disagree on best service practices, both sides agree that California’s state of mental health care delivery is in crisis.

“In the 1980s, mental health facilities were closed throughout the state, leaving a vulnerable population untreated,” said a spokesperson for the Board.

“With reduced secure mental health facilities, there are limited treatment options for people in the criminal justice system who have a mental health diagnosis, which has led to their incarceration in facilities not equipped to meet their needs.”

That is why the correctional facility expansion is imperative, they said.

Meanwhile, Reform members said despite the approval vote, they will continue to move forward with their campaign.

“In the long run, we recognize that the path that we are on [in California] is not sustainable,” said campaign chair, Patrisse Cullors.

“You cannot just keep jailing people suffering from mental illness–not even if you build a nice new shiny jails and call them treatment centers–it’s still a jail and people who are mentally ill and oftentimes homeless are being preying upon and counted on to fill up these new cells. We need alternatives to incarceration for our most vulnerable populations and that’s what Reform L.A. Jails is about.  Reforming L.A. County jails.”

Currently in the signature gathering phase, Reform L.A. Jails members said they have collected over 170,000 signatures of registered voters in Los Angeles County towards qualifying for the ballot. To get involved with the campaign and to sign the petition, visit www.ReformLAJails.com.