Defendant spoke of her struggle to overcome her anger and accept her need for mental health treatment.
When she finished, the judge led the courtroom to applause. Then, further canceling the hierarchy of courtroom etiquette, Judge Theresa R. McGonigle stepped down from the bench, hugged the defendant, and posed for a photo with her.
Five times that day, McGonigle and two of her fellow judges repeated that ritual, greeting individuals accused of breaking the law who had chosen to be treated for mental illness rather than face up to prosecute.
After completing court-ordered mental health programs, each person is free to walk out of the courtroom – charges are dismissed and criminal cases cleared from the record.
Even the prosecutor is free.
“It was quite a heartbreaking incident that happened,” said City Deputy Atty. Andre Quintero tells the young woman about the crime she is accused of. “I’m not going to repeat that because that’s not you.”
The five defendants that day were all graduates of Fast navigation programan initiative at the Los Angeles Criminal Court is making a small dent in the disproportionate number of mental offenders in the LA County Jail complex.
Rapid diversion aims to identify candidates for mental health diversion as soon as possible after their arrest so that they can be transferred to community care without long jail time. lead to further mental deterioration.
“Everyone understands that it is better for the community and that person if we don’t just give them 10 days in jail and then put them back where they started,” said Nick Stewart-Oaten, appeals attorney for the LA County Public Prosecutor’s office and author of the law. state said. allow redirects before testing. He started the diversion program in LA County.
Initially, only minor offenders were eligible for a quick diversion. Several felonies were later included. Most of the redirects are for low level offenses often related to mental illness: trespassing, assault, vandalism and public intoxication.
In the county’s extensive criminal justice system, the ideal place for early arrest is in the courthouse where prisoners are transported to the courthouse, ideally within 72 hours, to charge.
Of the thousands of defendants who pass by daily, many stand out to public defenders as offenders whose crimes clearly arise from untreated mental illness.
Previously, their only option was to request a court-ordered psychiatric examination, a process that required a psychiatrist to arrange.
“It took two months or more,” says Stewart-Oaten. “Someone in custody could be lost all that time.”
Rapid redirects place clinical staff inside the court to provide that assessment on the spot.
At the downtown Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center, one of six courts now with rapid diversion programs, three groups of clinical social workers and case coordinators are based at the office. the 19th floor room of the public attorney.
As case files pile up in impeachment court — some days a few, some days dozens — public defenders keep an eye on cases that might qualify. If a follow-up interview confirms that the defendant is a candidate for diversion, the public attorney will request a clinical evaluation.
A social worker and case navigator went downstairs and spoke to the defendant. With access to the county’s mental health record system, they can gather clinical history and make recommendations: redirect to outpatient, redirect to inpatient, or not to redirect .
The public defender, city or county prosecutor, and clinical team must all sign before a diversion can be made. Guidelines for the types of cases that qualify have been discussed in advance with the city and county attorney’s offices. Line prosecutors generally agree with the assessment.
“There are a lot of cases where we agree,” says Stewart-Oaten. “I think the hardest part of my job is convincing my colleagues. Turns out the hardest part was convincing the candidate.”
Many people refuse simply because they know they will be released in a few days.
Acceptors are enrolled in a treatment program that usually lasts one year. It can last longer if they fail, like many others. Participants meet weekly with their court case manager, who will report to the judge on their progress. Anytime The judge can revoke the redirect and restart the criminal case.
“We’re asking these people to do more than they have to if they go ahead with their criminal case,” said Stewart-Oaten.
The treatment program is determined by the clinical team.
“If our clinical team says you need an inpatient program, that’s a requirement,” says Stewart-Oaten. “What we try to do is get lawyers out of mental health decisions. Our attorneys have no say on the exact treatment program.”
Some candidates balked at a residential program. For adopters, the release may be delayed.
“Ideally, we want the evaluation and treatment on the same day,” says Stewart-Oaten. “That’s not going to happen in any case until we have a bed available.”
In particular, acute care beds in locked-down facilities are scarce. With an emphasis on quickness, the show focuses on defendants with moderate mental illness.
Typically, candidates have previously received treatment, sometimes in-home care, when some setback or gap in service caused a period.
“A lot of the time it’s just a matter of reconnecting them and adjusting the distance,” says Stewart-Oaten.
In its nearly four years of operation, Rapid Diversion has released more than 1,500 people from prison. So far, 350 have graduated.
The program’s countywide coordinator, Caroline Goodson, who attends most of the graduations, said the graduation ceremony has become a valuable element of the treatment. The impartial machinery of the court was suspended and the defendant’s narrative became the center of attention. Goodson begins each with a note of gratitude.
“I would love to tell you what Mr. V has been through,” she said in court as the defendant stood beside her with his case manager on the other side. (The Times hid the defendant’s full name at a court request because his criminal record had been cleared.)
“This is a true story of trauma and its treatment,” she said. “Mr. V. has been through a lot. He went through trauma when he was young when he was shot. Then he was shot in the jaw again in 2019. Since then he has suffered from health problems. mentally ill. He’s living homeless on the street. He’s estranged from his family.”
She then details his court-supervised treatment: a Salvation Army shelter, job training, a sober living home with substance use services, and in near future, his own home.
Quintero later spoke for the city attorney’s office.
“I often say that you have two paths to choose from, an easier path and a more difficult one,” he said. “When you look at the allegations, they are serious allegations. They relate to a knife and they relate to your family, right?
“So the fact that you’re reconnecting with them and going to church with them, that’s what we want for you. Ultimately, that’s what we want for you, to have a better life and circumstances with your family.
“On behalf of the People of the State of California, we congratulate you and we are proud of your work and we are happy not to oppose layoffs.”
Judge Natalie Stone then added a slightly more edgy final word.
“It’s not clear that you’re going to be successful, and that usually doesn’t happen,” she says. “So your example is really good for me. I know it’s been really hard for you and a lot of work has been done. You did not choose the easy path. You have chosen the hard work, and I congratulate you.”
She then stepped off the bench to pose with the defendant and his team for a group photo.
Goodson said she was stunned when she first saw a judge step out of her chair to make a personal connection with a client.
Now it happens almost all the time and as part of the ceremony has become a huge motivator for customers.
“Hearing them praise our client like that and hearing the prosecution do it, do it in a healthy way and acknowledge that the client has achieved so much is really powerful,” she said.
It’s too early to determine what the success rate of the quick redirect will be, but early signs are encouraging, Stewart-Oaten said. So far, only 5% of graduates have returned with a new fee. About 70% of those remaining in the program are on track to graduate. And among those who dropped out without graduating and returned to court to complete their criminal case, the recidivism rate only increased to 10 percent.
The Rapid Diversion Program began in 2019 with a $1.1 million MacArthur Foundation grant received by the public attorney’s office and the alternative public attorney’s office with the support of a nonprofit profit named Court Innovation Center. The center, since renamed the Center for Justice Innovation, still advises the county.
Funding has largely gone to the county, although the MacArthur grant still covers some costs.
This program was incorporated into the new LA County Justice, Care, and Opportunity Division created last year to reduce the population and eventually close the Men’s Central Jail by expanding community care. community for those who are diverted or released from the justice system.
After starting operations downtown, it has since expanded with 60 employees deployed in five other courts: Airport, Van Nuys, Long Beach, Lancaster and Compton. The sixth show is scheduled to begin in Pasadena in the fall.
Stewart-Oaten said he received calls from public defenders and prosecutors in other courts asking when they could reach out to divert.
The limiting factor is hiring clinical staff, he said.
“As soon as we can,” he told them. “We had to find clinical staff, attorneys and pilot staff to expand.”
“This is not a conversation about how we deal with things,” says Stewart-Oaten. “This is a conversation about how We started working on things. We start with zero redirection. We just hit 1,500. There’s a lot to do here. We are aware of that.”