Handling Mental Illness in County Jails

According to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, from 2011 to 2012 over 40% of jail inmates had a mental illness diagnosis. Of those, only about a third were being treated for the illness. Many of these individuals can be found in county jails across the country. As the justice system continues to criminalize those with mental illness, it places a significant burden on the county jails that house them.

Unique Challenges

Unlike prisons that house inmates that have been convicted and sentenced for a crime, county jails are responsible for a mix of different types of inmates. Some inmates are awaiting trial while others are serving relatively short sentences. This can make it difficult to mandate programs for individuals who have yet to be convicted. Many county jails are also overcrowded and face budget shortfalls. The facilities simply do not have the resources to handle a population of inmates with mental illness.

Mental Health Screenings

County jails are on the front lines of the mental health crisis. They are often their communities’ largest mental health facility. Some jails are attempting to address the problem by increasing screening for mental illness during the intake of an inmate or when an issue arises. Once an inmate is identified as potentially having a mental disability, they are then referred to treatment from the community once they are released. Inmates are sometimes assigned caseworkers while in jail who can help them connect with treatment and navigate their release. The hope is that treatment will prevent the individual from returning to jail and help them integrate into the community.

Problems Continue

The reality of the situation is that many county jails are ill-equipped to handle inmates with mental illness and that some are unwilling to seek out a solution. Diversion programs that would prevent mentally ill individuals from even entering jail in the first place would go a long way toward relieving the issue. Increased funding for mental health treatment across the board could lead to individuals being identified as mentally ill before they even become involved with the criminal justice system.

If you or a loved one with a mental disability has been arrested or convicted of a crime, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney on your side. Elizabeth Kelley specializes in representing individuals with mental illnesses and intellectual and developmental disabilities. To schedule a consultation call (509) 991-7058.

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