Legislation aids jail inmates with mental health issues

With mental health budgets cut by almost 10 percent, inmates with mental issues are kept in jails longer.

Following a mental evaluation at the Missouri Psychiatric Center in early March, a Cole County Jail inmate attempted suicide after returning to jail.

The incident is representative of the growing problems sheriffs face regarding state mental health cuts, Cole County Sheriff Greg White said.

“We’re looking at how ridiculously overcrowded jails are and the over-incarceration of non-violent offenders,” said Dan Viets, an American Civil Liberties Union member.

That inmate was released from MUPC after deemed no longer suicidal. He was brought back to jail, where he hung himself. But a jailer rescued him.

“As a sheriff, we’re required to maintain the health of our inmates,” White said. “But we’re not in the business of acting as a mental health institution.”

An Illinois law enforcement group recently announced its support of legislation addressing the excess of jail inmates waiting to be transferred to state psychiatric facilities.

According to the Illinois Sheriffs’ Association, inmates with mental illnesses often wait months in jails before being admitted into a state facility for treatment. The proposal would require inmates be transferred to a treatment facility within 10 days.

The Missouri House of Representatives is considering two bills involving nonviolent offenders but has not mentioned legislation specific to mental disorders.

The Boone County Jail’s maximum capacity is 210, but 235 inmates are currently in jail.

If the accused person has a mental disease, the judge can issue a competency examination.

Those accused often plead guilty rather than take the examination, Boone County Assistant Prosecutor Merilee Crockett said.

“It’s not always in someone’s best legal interest to go that route, because there are instances where someone is going to be committed to a hospital for who knows how long,” she said. “If someone pleads guilty and ends up in jail for a few days, that’s a lot better than spending time in a mental hospital.”

In response to the concerns of jail inmates with mental illnesses, Boone County established a Mental Health Court in 2003.

The Mental Health Court is an alternative sentencing program approved through Proposition L in 2002.

“It’s to assist them and get their life on a stable track,” Crockett said. “Some of them may never have committed a crime if not for their mental illness. Some of them have never had treatment.”

There are more than 250 mental health courts around the country, a report from the Council of State Governments Justice Center stated.

“If we can help get them stable, they’re probably not going to commit another crime,” Crockett said. “This helps people not violate their probation and get them stabilized.”

If not admitted to alternative treatment via a Mental Health Court, most other convicts are sent to jails.

“We don’t like the idea that we are becoming a repository for the mentally ill,” White said.

Government funding toward mental health treatment dropped by almost $3 million from 2010, an approximate 7 percent decrease in funding.

Some jails, including the Boone County Jail, offer an alternative service provided by Behavioral Health Concepts, offering psychiatric counseling and mental health services to inmates.

Twenty-five to 30 percent of inmates use those sessions, and about 70 percent of those inmates are on medication for mental disorders, Boone County Chief Warren Brewer said.

“We argue nonviolent offenders should be provided with help,” Viets said. “Prison is a school for crime. If someone has a nonviolent offense and we put them in prison, within a few years that person is going to come out changed and for the worse.”

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