EDITORIAL: Stepping Up to ID, help mentally ill
Times-Tribune - 4/9/2017
April 09--About 2 million people with serious mental illnesses are committed to county jails and state prisons across the country each year, according to the Council of State Governments Justice Center.
And John Wetzel, Pennsylvania secretary of corrections, says that the state prison population on any given day includes more than 14,000 inmates with mental illnesses.
Yet, in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, those broad numbers are not matched by detailed data that could help find better solutions than jail for more of those people.
To that end, Wetzel has enrolled Pennsylvania in a Council of State Governments Justice Center program, Stepping Up, that aims to reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in county jails and connect them with the service they need to keep them out of jail.
Richard Cho, the center's director of behavioral health, said about 5 percent of people in the general population suffer mental illnesses, compared with at least 17 percent of people in prison. About 80 percent of those inmates are drug addicted, which is a mental illness itself, but also often derives from underlying illnesses.
Stepping Up focuses on county jails, Cho said, because their data in many jurisdictions is not as comprehensive as that at the state prison level. Turnover is higher because of shorter sentences at the county level, but the recidivism rate for mentally ill inmates also is much higher -- a situation that calls for greater access to mental health treatment.
Stepping Up is a long-term program that begins with counties gathering specific data on the mental health of their inmate populations and tracking recidivism and other factors. Then, with the center's help, counties can devise plans to steer more mentally ill people away from prison and into treatment.
Not only the individual inmates, but taxpayers and the justice system have a huge stake in the project's success. Mentally ill inmates typically wait longer for trial or other resolutions of their cases. Coupled with the higher recidivism rates, that is a major cost driver.
So far, 13 counties in Pennsylvania are among the 325 nationally participating in Stepping Up, with Dauphin County serving as a lead demonstration project. Counties across Northeast Pennsylvania should join the effort.
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