Five questions for Michelle Parris of the Vera Institute of Justice

For decades, the American Civil Liberties Union has been trying to force Los Angeles County to improve conditions in its jails, which the ACLU has described as “barbaric.”  And for decades, little changed. That could be finally on the verge of shifting after county officials agreed to settle a long-running lawsuit that would require it to decrease overcrowding and provide better mental health services to those incarcerated.  

The American Civil Liberties Union, which represents people incarcerated at the jail, called the settlement with the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and Sheriff Robert Luna a “watershed moment” for the movement to reduce jail populations and improve conditions for those who remain.

“This is the first time in the country a jurisdiction that we or other advocates have sued agreed that the cornerstone to addressing abysmal jail conditions and overcrowding is to reduce the number of people coming to jail in the first place and to create alternatives to incarceration,” Corene Kendrick, deputy director of the ACLU National Prison Project, said in a press release. “A person cannot get well in a jail cell.”

Michelle Parris of the Vera Institute for Justice. Photo: Maria Jose Vides

Conditions cited in the lawsuit included people with serious mental illness being chained to chairs for days at a time and forced to go days without their medication, people forced to defecate in trash cans and urinate in food containers and cells with overflowing sinks and toilets.

The agreement – which was formalized in a June 22 court order by U.S. District Judge Dean D. Pregerson – requires the county to create nearly 2,000 community beds as an alternative to jailing those with mental health issues. Most of those beds must be available in the next two years, according to the agreement. The county also agreed to increase mental health staffing and to screen and prescribe medication within 24 hours of someone entering the Inmate Reception Center.

MindSite News spoke with Michelle Parris, director of the Vera Institute of Justice’s California office, about what this settlement means for jails in Los Angeles, and the potential for the impact to ripple outward to other parts of the country. The Vera Institute is a 60-year-old national nonprofit focused on ending mass incarceration and securing investments in community-based systems of care.

The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Los Angeles has been under court order to improve the jails since 1978. How is this different?

I think that this is a different moment because this is a time where the county is actually saying: “We’re not going to pivot to trying to invest more into the infrastructure of the jail right now. We’re not going to use infrastructure improvement as our primary strategy. Instead, we’re committing to decarceration as the way to alleviate some of the conditions in the jail and we are going to build community-based options for people.

Mentally ill people and others have spent days sleeping on chairs or concrete floors without bedding. Pboto: Men’s Central Jail/LA County Sheriff’s Department

That hasn’t been done before in this litigation. A lot of what the county has tried to do in the past is figure out how to move people around – maybe a little decarceration planning, but this is the first time that they’ve actually made concrete this number of beds and have a clear plan for reporting to the court, and thus monitoring are they actually accomplishing these things.

What is the Vera Institute’s connection to this lawsuit from the ACLU?

We share a lot of the same goals. We both want to secure community-based mental health treatment beds for people coming out of jail and to prioritize decarceration as the strategy for actually improving jail conditions and addressing overcrowding. The litigation in many ways has run this parallel course with a lot of the local organizing around our advocacy for mental health treatment beds. Because of our work with the county, we also have access to data on the jail population, including the mental health population in the jails, how many people are held pretrial, and the racial disparities in the jails. We have published quite a bit of that data. Some of the data the ACLU has relied on in engaging with the court and talking about the jail population is data that we’ve been able to surface and make public.

What is the impact of this settlement for the 42% of incarcerated people in LA with documented mental health histories? 

There are programs in place to actually start to identify who’s appropriate for a bed in the community and to place them there.  As the beds are brought online, the departments that work with folks in jail are going to be able to get more people out to the beds in the community. 

Similarly, there are already courtrooms that are dedicated to mental health diversion and that place people in mental health beds. Those courts will be able to simply release people to these beds more quickly.

Functionally speaking, it should impact a lot of those folks who’ve been languishing for a long time, and, hopefully, there’s some prioritization to get those folks out to treatment settings.

What are some of the bureaucratic hurdles that they’re going to encounter to implement the provisions of this settlement?

We surveyed a number of local service providers recently that provide housing and support services for people who are released from jail pretrial. What we found is that a lot of the service providers across the county that have beds that they could bring online run small mom-and-pop houses. They are connected to other service providers, but it’s incredibly difficult for a lot of these folks to contract with the county because county contracting is extremely complex.

Billing and invoicing is so onerous that small and medium-sized providers have difficulty keeping up with that paperwork. Often, their already stretched workforce is burnt out by having to do many, many minutes of paperwork for every single minute that they’re actually caring for somebody. 

What should we be paying attention to next to follow this?

The settlement agreement requires quarterly reports around the number of beds that are brought on line, and we think the county should start reporting on those beds in real time. The community has long been asking not just for beds, but a way to actually track the number of available beds. I think it’s going to be really crucial – for the purposes of accountability – to actually start to track the number of beds that are bought on line and the current population of the jail to ensure that we understand the volume of demand, what else is needed. We  also need to start to track the geographical location of the new beds that are brought on line.

 One of the things that has surfaced over the last few years is that the communities most impacted by incarceration are the ones that don’t have access to mental health services or substance use treatment. It’s going to be critical that these beds are made available in communities that are deeply impacted by incarceration. So being able to track not just the number of beds that are brought on line, but how those beds are operating and where they are, is going to be a critical piece of making sure this is an effective solution.

Read the full settlement agreement here.

Type of work:

Josh McGhee is an investigative reporter covering the intersection of criminal justice and mental health with an emphasis on public records and data reporting. He has covered Chicago on various beats for...