Investment in mental-health care in jails reaps dividends for inmates & public safety


County jails in our state and nation face increasingly daunting tasks in carrying out their challenging multi-pronged mandates to house, feed, punish, rehabilitate and educate the more than 10 million inmates that check into their facilities annually.

One often overlooked yet growing challenge many short-term correctional facilities struggle to adequately meet is their responsibility to offer treatment to the soaring population of inmates with any of a variety of mental illnesses. In many respects, today’s local and county police and jailers have morphed into de facto primary caretakers for the mentally ill and drug-dependent.

Mahoning County Sheriff Jerry Greene clearly recognizes as much. “We are definitely one of the biggest mental-health hospitals in Mahoning County,” he said in a Page 1 story in Sunday’s Vindicator about the skyrocketing ranks and growing needs of incarcerated individuals who require counseling and other psychiatric services.

Truth be told, the downtown jail is more likely the largest mental-health treatment center in the county because about one-third of its inmate population – or 200 of about 600 prisoners – require medications for psychiatric conditions, according to Greene.

We commend the county’s chief law-enforcement officer for taking proactive steps to increase care and treatment for that population. That care can bring long-term benefits to both the inmate’s health and to public safety throughout the region.

Unfortunately, some of that high-risk population will continue to slip through the cracks. Sadly, far too many Ohioans with serious mental illness and substance-use disorders are lingering in our jails – not getting the help they need, reports Tracy Plouck, director of the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

That trend is troublesome. County jails on average spend two to three times more money in taxpayer dollars on adults with mental illnesses than on the regular inmate population. As county government budgets tighten, that strain hits correctional facilities particularly hard.

What’s more, individuals with mental illnesses tend to stay longer in jail and upon release are at a much higher risk of committing new crimes and returning to incarceration than those without mental illnesses.

As Duane Piccirilli, executive director of the Mahoning County Mental Health and Recovery Board, puts it: “If you lock somebody up and you don’t give them any treatment, they’re going to get locked up again.”

STEPPING UP

Fortunately, help is at hand to slow down that fast-moving revolving door.

A 3-year-old program called Stepping Up, a national initiative to reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in jails, is making strong inroads.

Stepping Up, for which former Ohio SUpreme Court Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton serves as Ohio director, has partnered with 418 counties in the nation – including Mahoning – to implement and help fund action plans to broaden services offered to jails’ mentally-ill population.

In Mahoning County, that plan involves the sheriff’s office, the county’s Mental Health and Recovery Board plus outside agencies including Meridian Healthcare, COMPASS Family and Community Services and others. Together they have provided additional counseling to inmates while incarcerated along with detailed game plans for finding housing and continuing treatment once released.

“The goal is to break the cycle of people who go to jail instead of going into mental health treatment,” Stratton said.

Given the early indications of Stepping Up’s success, other counties – most notably Trumbull and Columbiana in the Mahoning Valley – should waste no time in also joining the partnership. The national program includes a model resolution for county commissioners to use in affiliating with the program on its website, stepuptogether.org/what-you-can-do.

Elsewhere, state and federal governments have recognized the value of heightened mental-health care in jails by expanding grant and other funding opportunities. In addition, local mental-health courts that provide long-term treatment continue to produce success stories.

To do nothing is irresponsible and dangerous. Without intense intervention strategies, the lose-lose cycle will drag on. Mentally ill inmates will not get the help they need to turn their lives around, and communities will not escape the unseemly criminal side of untreated mental illness that too often threatens public health and safety.

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