Keeping mentally ill people out of jails

PRESCOTT – Every year, two million people with serious mental illnesses are jailed across the U.S., which is a rate up to six times higher than the general public.

WHAT IT IS

The Stepping Up Initiative is a national effort to advance counties’ efforts to reduce the number of adults with mental and co-occurring substance use disorders in jails.

Yavapai County Sheriff Scott Mascher, long an advocate of diversion programs for people with mental health problems, said last month, “Should the jails be the de facto mental health treatment centers? I don’t think we should be. Are we criminalizing the treatment of mental health? Remember, mental illness isn’t a crime. But if you get charged with a crime because of your mental health, it falls onto a criminal institution to provide treatment. As a result, the Detention Center has become the largest mental health treatment facility in the county.”

As part of the effort to change that, Yavapai County has joined with 316 other counties in states around the country in support of the Stepping Up Initiative. It’s a joint effort on the part of the National Association of Counties, the Council of State Governments Justice Center, and the American Psychiatric Association Foundation, which are trying to advance counties’ efforts to reduce the number of adults with mental and co-occurring substance use disorders in jails.

The initiative has a six-point plan to combat the problem:

• Convene or draw on a diverse team of leaders and decision makers from multiple agencies committed to safely reducing the number of people with mental illnesses in jails.

• Collect and review prevalent numbers and assess individuals’ needs to better identify adults entering jails with mental illnesses and their recidivism risk, and use that baseline information to guide decision-making.

• Examine treatment and service capacity to determine which programs and services are available in the county for people with mental illnesses and co-occurring substance use disorders, and identify state and local policy and funding barriers to minimizing contact with the justice system and providing treatment and supports in the community.

• Develop a plan with measurable outcomes that draws on the jail assessment and prevalent data and the examination of available treatment and service capacity, while considering identified barriers.

• Implement research-based approaches that advance the plan.

• Create a process to track progress.

“It’s important because we have to look at what the mental capacity is of individuals who are being circulated through our jails,” said Jack Smith, chairman of the Yavapai County Board of Supervisors. “The Stepping Up initiative is instrumental in making sure that people with mental disabilities are not just circulated through the jail system as opposed to getting treatment and maybe diversion.”

The Council of State Governments Justice Center will, on Jan. 18, release a roadmap of sorts, to help county governments begin to reduce the number of people with mental illness in jails.

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