Photo by Ted Soqui

Christina Brown was in the bedroom of her Signal Hill home on a July day in 1997 when she heard a crash. Dressed only in a T-shirt, she ran into her living room, where she saw the front door broken in and a large, heavyset man rifling through her jewelry. They locked eyes for a microsecond, then he bolted out the door, empty-handed, and Brown rushed outside screaming.

Late last fall, Brown testified in a Long Beach courtroom during the sentencing hearing for the intruder — a 38-year-old man named Jay Holton. In court, as Brown speaks of the trauma of the moment, Holton is sitting next to his lawyer, reflexively jutting out his lower lip and twitching his balding head nervously, bringing to mind a fatter, more florid version of the addled Billy Bob Thornton character in the film Sling Blade.

Schizophrenic and retarded since birth, Holton has a mental age of about 7 — a very slow 7. He lacks the ability to think logically, understand consequences, control his impulses or, often, recognize right from wrong. “He steals because he’s fascinated with coins and jewelry,” explains his passionately committed Deputy Public Defender, Brent Montgomery, “not to sell, but to jangle in his pockets.” Holton also hears voices and imagines things, such as that he has a limousine filled with beautiful women just awaiting his arrival.

Nevertheless, Deputy District Attorney Kenneth Lynch has been asking Judge Richard R. Romero to ignore Montgomery’s plea to send Holton to a state lock-down facility for the mentally impaired. Instead, Lynch is looking for a sentence of 35 years to life in state prison under the three-strikes law. After all, the eager, buttoned-down young prosecutor points out, Holton already had four convictions for similar residential burglaries before his conviction for the Brown break-in. “He’s a danger to the community,” Lynch tells the court, “and a danger to himself. He’s lucky someone hasn’t already shot him.”

Holton’s case is notable because it’s so typical. His is just another story in an L.A. County criminal-justice system with 1,000 prosecutors busy grinding out about 70,000 felony and 250,000 misdemeanor prosecutions per year. But unlike most defendants, Jay Holton has a few things going for him: an eloquent, dedicated public defender, a judge who appears to be listening hard and a family absolutely committed to him.

Not only are his mothers and sisters in court today, but so are about 25 other family members, joined by mental-health counselors who’ve worked with Jay in the past. Those who testify beg Romero not to send Holton to prison — where, as one counselor puts it — he will be killed “the first time something comes up.” A second counselor tells the judge that Jay (who, according to everyone, is a perfect jailhouse victim — soft, spaced-out and utterly nonviolent) has been regularly beaten, ripped-off and even sexually assaulted while in L.A. County Jail over the past year.

Holton’s sister, Sandra Navarro, lays it out best: “Please send my sick brother where he can receive treatment. He does not need to be abused, or hurt, or victimized. My mother and I have sent him about $300 every month in jail, and big packages of food and other basics. And the other inmates just take it from Jay. Do you understand,” she adds angrily as she leans over in the witness stand and addresses Lynch, “that he was burned in jail, that he was beaten?” Lynch doesn’t reply directly, just goes on and argues for the 35-to-life third-strike sentence. His only concern, he makes clear, is getting Holton off the street and making sure he never has the opportunity to break into another house.

Lynch’s rigid stance isn’t unusual. According to Assistant Public Defender Robert Kalunian — the number-two man in the L.A. County Public Defender’s Office — “the Los Angeles district attorney’s three-strikes policy is one of the most stringent in the state. Once prior strike cases are alleged, an individual deputy D.A. can’t [eliminate] a strike on his or her own. It has to be reviewed by a supervising D.A., who in turn has to meet very exacting, rigidly applied criteria.”

“The D.A.’s Office doesn’t try to make a total decision based on what’s best for the accused, the community, the victim and all other parties,” says Brent Montgomery during a break in the hearing. “They just go ahead and file as extreme a case as they can. Jay needs to go to a state developmental center, where there are people qualified to work with him and determine if and when he should be released. But the D.A. gave us two choices: ‘Go to trial, or go to trial.’ Jay’s a child in a man’s body. But he’s being prosecuted as an ordinary criminal because the system just wants to get rid of him.”


The District Attorney’s Office is not the only institution in L.A.’s criminal-justice system that deals with the mentally ill in this way. In its 1997 report on the L.A. County jails, for example, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department found that mentally ill inmates were locked up almost around the clock in dank, tiny, windowless cells, let out to exercise just one hour per week, and rarely permitted to shower. Medical charts for each inmate were scattered among several different jail facilities, and medications were permitted to lapse or were erroneously distributed. Warehoused “in cell after cell,” said the report, inmates “were psychotic or severely depressed and getting worse.” Meanwhile, a simultaneous county investigation by Merrick Bobb — a special counsel to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors who is charged with monitoring the Sheriff’s Department — found “a near collapse of accountability and responsibility for mentally disturbed inmates.”

The percentage of the 20,000 inmates incarcerated in L.A. County’s jails who are mentally ill is about the same as it is nationwide. About 7 percent of the almost 10 million people annually booked into America’s jails have acute or serious mental illness, and more than 50 percent have other mental problems, such as anxiety and antisocial personality disorders.

The numbers in state prisons are even greater. According to the federally funded National GAINS Center (which specializes in finding ways to improve the treatment of inmates with mental-health and substance- abuse problems), “serious mental illness in prisons is twice that of the jail population, and three to five times that of the rates found in the [outside] community . . . 5 percent are schizophrenic, 6 percent have bipolar disorder and 9 percent have unipolar depression . . . while approximately 13 percent of the prison population has both a serious mental illness and a co-occurring substance-abuse disorder.”

Through incompetence, inertia, apathy or simply not giving a damn, L.A. County Sheriff Sherman Block recognized none of this, as his jails became blights on the humanity of Los Angeles during the 1990s. In October 1997, for example, Bobb stated in a follow-up to his initial highly critical report that “a series of [his] recommendations” to the Sheriff’s Department and the Department of Mental Health (DMH) had been “largely ignored.” Since then, however, as Bobb wrote last June, “Our reports and the Justice Department investigation have had the intended effect of galvanizing the department and others to take action.

“One improvement,” Bobb recently pointed out, “and a very dramatic one, has been the transfer of the mentally ill from very substandard housing at Central Jail to good, clean, open housing with windows at Twin Towers jail.” Among other changes, according to Bobb, have been the addition of more DMH personnel to the jails, “a more rapid identification of mentally ill at the in- take point in the jails, a more rapid referral of those people to psychologists or psychiatrists, a better distribution of medications” and the selection of Dr. Ellen Reitz, a professor at USC Medical School, to transform the jail’s mental-health program.

As a result, says Bobb, “There is now greater expertise and greater numbers of people dealing with the mentally ill in the jails. This has all happened within the last year or so.

“Some of these changes are fairly far along,” Bobb continues. “But there remain very serious concerns about whether the increased funding for programs and staff promised by the Department of Mental Health will actually occur, and about the possibility of continued abuse of mentally ill inmates. But if you compare the treatment of the mentally ill in the jails today to 1996 — when the Justice Department and myself first began our investigations — there’s no denying that there’s been some real progress.”

An official of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department agrees with much of Bobb’s assessment, but is not quite so upbeat. “There’s no question there have been improvements,” notes the official. “Obviously, the Sheriff’s Department is not where it should be, or our investigation wouldn’t still be continuing. Most of the remaining deficiencies are along the same lines as we first noted — they’re simply not as bad. A lot of the problem remains inadequate staffing, which leads to inmates not getting out of their cells to receive treatment, and mistakes being made over things like medications.” (Reached at USC, Reitz declined to comment for this story.) “And there’s still harassment by officers not trained to deal with the mentally ill, as they now have been in the Twin Towers jail. But it’s taken a lot of really intense focus to even get us to this point.”


While Sherman Block had to be forced kicking and screaming into improving jail conditions, newly elected county Sheriff Lee Baca appears to have a far more open, affirmative attitude. And a special interest.

Raised by his grandparents, Baca helped them care for an uncle who was mentally ill from birth. “My grandparents and I,” said Baca recently, “assumed the parental role for my uncle because he needed to be fed, bathed, shaved, dressed and taken to the bathroom. So for the first 22 years of my life, I was exposed to the most severe kind of mental-health problem.

“My uncle’s case might not be the exact fit for the people I’m responsible for in the jails, but it’s close for certain inmates. And what I want to do is change the culture in the jails. We had the Department of Justice inspection, and there have been changes since then. We now have a very nice physical environment to house mentally ill inmates. But I know that what looks to be clean and orderly doesn’t mean they’re getting better treatment. You can have a brand-new facility, but the fact of the matter is that they’re still locked in 8-foot-by-8-foot cells.

“My desire is not to place misdemeanor offenders in high-security lockups that resemble the most draconian mental hospitals of the past centuries. I want the priority to be an environment where it’s understood that the mentally ill are in need of medical attention, and are not criminals. When I went to the Twin Towers jail and inspected those mental-health cells, what I saw were places where murderers ought to be. These are places for . . . isolation of the worst criminals. We dispense 6,000 pills a day. But what good does it do to give a person psychotropic drugs and put him back in a cell where he’s locked up for 24 hours a day?

“The security issue should not be the major issue for these people — the major issue is their treatment. And so the culture of security shouldn’t dominate the treatment setting. I can’t let them go free, but I don’t have to have them locked up in a manner that doesn’t facilitate their mental-health treatment.”

His plan, Baca says, is simple: “I want to outpatient these people to either a hospital or a clinic provider, where their medical records while they’re in our care are linked up with these outsider providers. I’ve asked the command people to start to put the framework on these ideas. I want a real tangible turnaround. Within the next three months, as we enter the budget cycle, I want to share our plan with the Board of Supervisors and the Department of Mental Health and let them buy into the process, so I’m not the shot caller and they join with me in the solution.” Given the depth of his personal commitment, how well Lee Baca lives up to these comments will be the clearest signpost to what we can expect from his tenure.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department’s monitoring continues. Its investigators will be making their next inspection in April.

As for Jay Holton, at the end of the hearing Judge Romero eliminates one of Holton’s strikes — he’d earlier found another to be invalid — and he sends him off to state prison for a 90-day evaluation. In March, Holton will return to court to learn his fate. “The easy thing,” says Brent Montgomery, “would be to simply send him to prison. That’s the D.A.’s position: ‘So what if he goes to prison? If he won’t stay out of people’s houses, he needs to go to prison.’ But everybody has a brother, son or father. If Jay were yours, would you say, ‘Fuck him, lock him up for good, I don’t care what happens, just keep him off the streets?’”

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