County jails housing wrong people

Mental illness has become financial burden

It may shock you to learn that county jails have become the largest mental health facilities in America.

County jails and taxpayers dollars are increasingly being used to detain pre-trial offenders and house inmates who suffer from serious mental illness and developmental disabilities; the majority of which do not pose a public safety risk.

Although offenders must be held accountable for their actions, most of these individuals have not committed serious crimes.

A more effective use of our limited resources is to safely provide supervision, treatment and support in the community for those with mental health issues to enhance the possibility of them becoming productive members of society.

More than 95 percent of county jail inmates will eventually return to the community, and if mental health issues remain untreated, they are very likely to cycle back into the system through the county jail repeatedly, costing taxpayers money and having negative effects on families, community safety and future generations.

Taxpayer dollars could be better spent to serve the needs of these individuals and the community.

The average cost of incarceration in a county jail is approximately $40,000 annually, compared to many community-based alternatives that are estimated to cost less than half of that amount and can provide effective support and services, as well as better outcomes.

Counties are the primary provider of criminal justice and jail operations with more than 80 percent of Pennsylvania sentences being served at the county level, either in jail, on probation, or in county intermediate punishment.

On a recent day at the Blair County Prison, 36 percent of the 281 inmates were on medical assistance with a mental health diagnosis prior to incarceration.

Statistics show that 39 percent had utilized mental health services and 10 percent had a psychiatric inpatient stay within 6 months prior to incarceration.

Even more troubling, 30 percent had a serious mental illness diagnosis (including schizophrenia, psychotic and bipolar disorders) requiring more extensive treatment.

Adding to the problem is the shortage of psychiatric and especially forensic psychiatric beds in state hospitals for county inmates who have mental illness and/or developmental disabilities.

For perspective, there are just 237 forensic beds available throughout the state, and about 250 inmates waiting for services to become available while they remain imprisoned — where their symptoms can become increasingly significant — until they can receive appropriate treatment.

How do we fix this? Greater focus must be placed on treatment and restoration services within the criminal justice system, including expanded options to allow mentally ill and developmentally disabled individuals to obtain care and treatment in the community rather than prison.

Effective strategies, support and services must be provided to control the need for incarceration and reduce re-entry into the criminal justice system.

We must improve understanding of special populations and unique circumstances so that positive reform and proper return on investment of taxpayer dollars can take place.

Prisons are not the place for many of these individuals. Society must provide care and treatment, as well as every possible tool in an effort to improve lives, use resources more appropriately and build safer communities.

It is just the right thing to do.

Erb is a Blair County commissioner.