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Jail Diversion as an Emerging Reality
I spent time in LA County Jail in the mid 1990’s. It was quite simply a horror of a place. There were routine fights and harassment by police. There was highly substandard food. There was little or nothing in terms of meaningful activity. But it was still one of the most influential periods in my life. Being in jail changed me as a person. I cam never go back to the way I was. There is a loss of innocence. I am much more compassionate and I have seen certain things that one only sees having been a prisoner
I met and spoke with a great many people while in jail. Many of them were similar to me in many ways but almost all were different in one capacity, the majority of the people I met were poor people. Almost everyone I met there came from families that lived in poverty. I could not get that out of my head. Why were there so many poor people there? Later, after I went to law school, I learned the breakdown of how many lawyers the wealthy have at their disposal and how few represent poor people. I knew about the great gap in resources available to the rich and those available to the poor but it was very different to see it as a reality. Imagine a whole giant group of people who all have some thing in common; they are all poor and they are all incarcerated. It was very disturbing.
What I learned more than anything in jail is what horrible places jails are and what a deep repository they are for people who have tragic lives. It is the place where society puts its mistakes, so that they may be forgotten about or at least placed out of sight.
After being sent to the state hospital and getting a deep grasp of my addiction and mental health issues I returned to college. I received my undergraduate degree and then went to law school. I learned a great deal about the legal system, its shortcomings and challenges, but I also learned that a better system is possible.
If we could get the system to change its orientation we could make a great impact. As we speak there is very little in the way of jail diversion. But one of the groups that I am active in called the Service Area Advisory Committee for service area five here in Los Angeles took up the idea of jail diversion. With the participation of Service Area Five and Six, and The Mental Health Commission, as well as LADMH we hosted a legislative breakfast on December 12, 2014. Many people worked very hard to make this legislative breakfast focused on jail diversion a reality. There were over one homered and seventy five people in the audience, including several police departments, lawyers, community members, mental health workers, program managers, and several executive directors of mental health centers and treatment centers.
Working for jail diversion is one of my life goals, but it came up quite organically in the SAAC 5 meeting some months ago. People are getting really interested in this idea. The fact is that generally folks are coming to the conclusion that jails don’t solve problems, in fact they ten to magnify problems. We can not jail our way out of poverty and lack of opportunities, we can not jail our way out of the problems of addiction and mental health crisis. For these reasons and many others jail diversion is a great idea.
Jail diversion is the idea that first of all many people who are in jail don’t really belong there. Also the idea is that many folks in jail now have a special set of problems that are not well suited for being solved in jails. The classic sets of problems that jail diversion could solve are things such as mental health issues, homelessness and extreme poverty, addiction and substance abuse to name a few. What jail diversion has at its heart is the idea that folks with some help can be treated in the community for their problems. This is a much more humane and just approach.
On December 12, I had the opportunity to speak about jail diversion alongside Reba Stevens SAAC 6, Marvin Southard DSW (Director LA County Mental Health) and Jackie Lacey JD (LA County District Attorney). Everyone who spoke that morning emphasized the importance and the potential of jail diversion. In my life this was a pivotal point. It was a time when I recommitted myself to jail diversion, a time when I focused on where I came from and where I think we should be headed.
Diversion is a great idea, but it is mostly still an idea. We have to work to make it a reality. What it will take to make jail diversion a reality is for the community to get behind the idea. We have had a lot of hysteria in our media about crime and the dangerousness of our communities. It would be great to focus on a solution to the systemic problems that drive people to break the law. One of those solutions is jail diversion.
Tristan Scremin was born in Rosario, Argentina and emigrated to the US along with his family as a young child. He spent his formative years in Albuquerque NM and has lived in the Los Angeles area since 1991. Tristan believes that a true understanding of one’s own story is a key to understanding the world.