(Recently retired director of the Office of the Diversion and Reentry)
In my 25 years as a Superior Court judge, I often had to sentence someone and had no option of any viable community-based care. The default was either county jail or state prison for many people who, in hindsight, could have flourished under care in the community.
In 2016, I was asked to step out of retirement to direct the newly-founded Office of Diversion and Reentry. I saw great possibilities. I already knew about the lack of tools in our criminal justice system to address the needs of those with mental health needs, substance use, and homelessness. Now new tools were within reach.
ODR’s first task was to develop a model for intervention that would safely bring people with mental illness who were homeless or at risk of homelessness out of jail and into care in their communities. We succeeded in developing that unique model. Over the next three years, based on the excitement of our initial successes, our portfolios of work grew significantly.
ODR’s Community Based Harm Reduction team launched the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, enabling law enforcement officers and communities to provide access to services instead of arresting people who use drugs. That team also created our Overdose Prevention program, which has placed the overdose-reversing medication naloxone in communities and at the jails. Our Reentry Division provides navigation to reentry programming through trusted peers with lived experience for individuals who have had justice-system contact. And the launch of our Youth Diversion and Development Division marked the County’s investment in non-punitive, life-affirming services for young people and their families.
Research shows that ODR’s programs fill long-standing gaps in services, are more cost-effective, make our communities healthier and safer, and can be expanded to serve more people. They are breaking the vicious circle between incarceration and homelessness.
Seeing ODR’s impact and looking back, I wish I could explain what I have learned to every judge who sees criminal defendants in their courtroom: that repeated and long-term exposure to traumatic experiences can lead to instability, drug dependencies, and violence. That most people in these situations want to change and want support. And that we can fundamentally transform a human being’s behaviors, their families, and their communities by providing those services with a non-judgmental, non-punitive model.
When I saw our clients thriving in the community after receiving care and stability through our services, I reflected on the number of people I saw cycling through my courtroom who did not receive the support they’d needed. Those lessons have transformed my understanding of effective intervention to prevent violence and suffering in our communities, and they must continue to shape the transformation of our justice system.
If our model of care was going to work, we needed to build partnerships with the communities hurt the most by overincarceration. We at ODR have been blessed by exceptional trust and support from these communities, and we have learned immeasurably from working with them.
When COVID hit, the strength and resiliency of those partnerships allowed us to move vulnerable people into community care and protect them from infection.
There’s more work to do to make Los Angeles a better, safer county for everyone; to break the cycle of mental illness, arrest and homelessness; and to extend care, not jail, to everyone who it would serve. The good news that we know how to do it. In fact, we’ve already begun. I’m grateful to have had the chance to get that work started.