Dissertation Defense - Managing the Mentally Ill in Los Angeles

Thu, 06/01/2017

Date:  June 1, 2017

Time:  3:00pm - 5:00pm

Location:  Social Ecology II,  Room 2372

Featuring:  Natalie Pifer, Candidate for Ph.D. in Criminology, Law & Society



Title:  Managing the Mentally Ill in Los Angeles

Committee:  Elliott Currie (co-chair), Keramet Reiter (co-chair), Mona Lynch, George Tita, Kaaryn Gustafson


This project uses the case of Los Angeles (LA) to analyze how the criminal justice system has evolved to ostensibly better manage the mentally ill in the wake of transinstitutionalization and in reaction to federal civil rights litigation demanding reform. I use original qualitative data to analyze two criminal justice reforms designed to create safer parameters for police encounters with the mentally ill, improve the conditions of confinement for those who are arrested, and divert the mentally ill from the system to treatment: the Los Angeles Police Department’s (LAPD) Mental Evaluation Unit (MEU) and the county’s decision to replace its Men’s Central Jail with the Consolidated Correctional Treatment Facility (CCTF), a state-of-the-art jail facility that will primarily focus on mental health treatment.

Chapter 1 uses archival and legal analysis to trace how the MEU and the CCTF unfolded as specialized policy solutions designed to improve the criminal justice system’s management of the mentally ill by hybridizing care and control logics. These reforms constitute a novel form of “specialized justice” and represent the next turn of transinstutionalization in which the criminal justice system’s management of the mentally ill shifts from a de facto to an explicit responsibility. Chapters 2 and 3 use original data collected through field observations of and open-ended conversations with LAPD officers to examine how specialized justice reforms are implemented on the ground by analyzing how front-line workers navigate the task of policing the mentally ill. Chapter 2 identifies the processes through which patrol officers filter individuals in and out of the category of mental illness and how MEU resources unfold on the ground and Chapter 3 describes how patrol officers understand their role on the frontlines of transinstitutionalization. These chapters reveal the pitfalls of entrenching the management of the mentally ill in the criminal justice system by identifying how the on-the-ground realities of specialized justice reforms like the MEU fall short of their formal promise to better police the mentally ill. The dissertation concludes by discussing the case study’s implications for understanding the system’s place on the frontlines of managing social problems through specialized justice.