Jails Shouldn’t Be the Psychiatric Hospitals of Last Resort

Jails Shouldn’t Be the Psychiatric Hospitals of Last Resort

September 20th, 2018 by McNeely | Stephenson

Indiana state psychiatric hospitals used to be full of people who needed help. But that help varied from person to person, and many were “locked away” when effective treatments could have been used in much less restrictive surroundings. Due to lawsuits and changes in the law, people have much more control over their treatment and these state hospitals have largely closed. An unintended result is that many who are mentally ill are convicted of crimes and land in jail, where they’re eventually treated. This is a huge waste of human potential and government resources.

Prioritizing treatment, not incarceration, will improve public safety and help reduce costs of local and state jails that are straining government budgets, according to an editorial in USA Today. About two  million times a year, those with serious mental illnesses (including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and severe major depression) are booked into U.S. jails, according to estimates by a 2009 study. It’s estimated that about 75% of these people also have substance abuse disorders.

The number of people in custody who have a serious mental illness is unknown. Most local sheriffs and jail administrators don’t know how many of their inmates suffer with a mental illness, even though they’re legally obligated to provide health care to them. This leaves prison officials, who have little data or training, guessing as how to address mental health care issues.  

The commitment by county leaders varies. Some just want to warehouse inmates, while others are committed to tackling the issue of psychiatric treatment. A problem can’t be addressed if you don’t know much about it, so jails and prisons need to start with collecting data on the number of inmates who have a mental illness.

Franklin County, Ohio, has a population of about 1.3 million people. Law enforcement officials have learned that many with mental illnesses are arrested and booked into jail for minor or nonviolent incidents related to a crisis. Because of better knowledge about mental health issues and how they can manifest themselves, the county cut arrests for nonviolent offenses by 16% from 2014 to 2016. Their goal is to cut these arrests by 30% by 2020 and to reduce by half the number inmates with mental illnesses.

In Pacific County, Washington (population 22,000), leaders developed a database to list mental health screening results of those who had been in the criminal justice system. No matter how the person comes into contact with law enforcement, those with mental illnesses can be connected to appropriate treatment and services.

Criminal justice and mental health leaders worked together to define serious mental illnesses and started screening everyone booked into jail. Those identified with serious mental illnesses were referred to a licensed clinician for a full assessment. Leaders in these Ohio and Washington counties are recording and tracking screening and assessment information to determine how many in the system suffer from mental illness and to provide them with proper treatment.

Jails shouldn’t be psychiatric hospitals. If criminal acts are the result of mental illness, just putting the person in jail won’t make them stop. Getting people the right care and getting them off the path to repeated incarceration is much better for the individual, taxpayers and society as a whole.

McNeely Stephenson has faithfully served the people and communities of Indiana for several years in a variety of criminal defense cases and will help you create a strategy that gives you the chance for the best possible outcome. With offices in New Albany and attorneys who are licensed to serve the Kentuckiana area, we have the knowledge, experience and resources to help. To ask a question or to set up a consultation, contact us today.