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Closer Look: State effort to keep those with mental health problems out of jail

April 30, 2017 | By Joshua Vaughn

Each year millions of people with serious mental illness wind up in county jails and prisons.

These inmates can pose unique challenges for jails, and the toll incarceration can take on a person with mental health issues can be immense.

“Our estimates are that approximately 2 million people each year are booked into jails who have a serious mental illness,” said Richard Cho, Council of State Governments Justice Center director of behavioral health.

The Council of State Governments Justice Center is a nonprofit organization that focuses on data-driven approaches to issues in the criminal justice system.

Cho said roughly 17 percent of inmates in county jails and prisons have serious mental health issues, compared to 5 percent in the general community.

“(That’s) more than three times the prevalence in the general population,” Cho said.

Earlier this month, Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel and Cho announced that Pennsylvania would join the national Stepping Up Initiative aimed at reducing that number and connecting people with needed services.

“Right now, jails and police are our primary and first response to mental illness,” Cho said. “That’s a situation I think the public is beginning to confront in a major way.”

Stepping Up in Pennsylvania will be led by Pennsylvania’s Mental Health and Justice Advisory Committee with members from groups including the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, the Department of Human Services Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services and the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.

The imitative calls on county governments to begin measuring things like how many people in their jails and prisons have mental health issues, recidivism rates for those offenders and what mental health services they receive outside of the criminal justice system.

“For the most part, these are folks who are not committing serious offenses,” he said. “There are certainly some who committed very serious offenses, but most of these are folks who are being booked in for nuisance offenses or minor misdemeanors.”

While the offenses may typically be minor, the resulting incarceration generally is not, Cho said.

He said people with serious mental health issues typically spend twice as much time in prison pretrial than people without those issues.

“It’s both a problem of more people coming in who have serious mental illness … and then once they come into the jails, for a number of reasons, they end up spending twice as long as folks without mental illness in jails,” Cho said.

In many cases, people in the criminal justice system with serious mental health issues also have substance abuse and addiction issues.

Cho said nearly 80 percent of incarcerated people who have mental health issues also deal with substance abuse and addiction.

Cho said the ultimate goal of the Stepping Up initiative is to better coordinate services inside and out of the criminal justice system to better address mental health issues in the community.

This is meant to reduce crime, reduce recidivism and stem what Cho described as a rising number of people with mental health issues entering county jails and prisons.

“You can’t find many police departments that have not instituted some form of mental health training,” he said. “You have many communities creating programs like mental health courts … and a variety of programs both inside the jails and outside that are really intended to address this problem, and yet this problem is bigger than ever.

“What Stepping Up was intended to do was say ‘it’s time now to move beyond pilot programs and small scale efforts, but instead bring to scale that which we know will bring (the number of people with mental health issues in jails) down,’” he said.

Thirteen counties — including Franklin, Fulton and Dauphin counties — have passed resolutions to take part in the Stepping Up initiative.

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