A Los Angeles diversion program that offers homeless, addicted or mentally ill arrestees an alternative to jail time for certain nonviolent crimes has received a lukewarm welcome from those it is intended to help.
The LAPD’s Alternatives to Incarceration Program offers participants a chance to avoid criminal charges and possible jail time while also receiving treatment and housing. Eligible individuals include mentally ill, addicted or homeless adults arrested for nonviolent crimes such as prostitution, trespassing or petty theft. Treatment and housing are then offered via community services organizations connected to the program.
Those arrested for misdemeanors who qualify for the program must remain in it for 90 days to avoid prosecution by the city attorney’s office. Individuals arrested for nonviolent felonies, which are prosecuted by District Attorney George Gascón’s office, must complete 180 days.
Despite offering a second chance to many people facing jail time, the program has not had an enthusiastic reception. In nearly a year, only 17 people have successfully completed it out of 283 eligible candidates since the program was launched last summer.
According to data from LAPD’s 77th Street Jail, most eligible individuals either failed to comply with the program’s requirements or declined to participate in it altogether.
Some experts say the lack of interest in the program is due to policies initiated by Gascón and court officials, such as getting rid of cash bail during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Under this policy, people who before the pandemic could not afford to post bail and get out of jail can now be set free to await trial. For many, the prospect of getting out of jail with no strings attached may be more attractive than entering a 90- to 180-day commitment to the diversion program.
“The individuals who are brought in believe they will be released very quickly, which they are,” LAPD Deputy Chief Kris Pitcher told the Los Angeles Times. “The court’s zero-bail practice is wreaking havoc on this program.”
Pitcher also believes people turn down diversion because they feel they will not be prosecuted under Gascón’s lenient office.
Gascón’s office told the Times that bail should not be used as a way to persuade individuals to undergo treatment.
It is “unconstitutional to use unaffordable bail or pretrial incarceration simply to coerce people into treatment,” the office stated, adding that L.A. officials should look 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 with mental illness and addiction problems say that programs with long time commitments that are run by a law enforcement agency are often ignored by these individuals, who could have concerns about work or childcare issues or may fear losing privacy or autonomy.
The program is one of many attempts to address the mental health and homeless crisis. California Governor Gavin Newsom recently proposed controversial legislation that would allow judges to force people with mental illness or addiction to receive treatment, which many advocates are criticizing as too extreme.
At the moment, the LAPD has no plans to expand the current diversion program or replace it with an alternative program.