Editorial: Keep mentally ill out of jails
Jails are not the right place to treat mental illness. And yet in Michigan, local lock-ups have become the default treatment center for those whose inappropriate behavior stems from mental health struggles.
An estimated one-third of jail inmates in the state suffer from severe mental problems requiring medication. And as high as 80% have some lesser degree of chronic mental illness.
They too often end up behind bars because law enforcement officers in much of the state have nowhere else to take them. This contributes to the overcrowding of many county jails, and is a strain on local budgets.
A new report on jail reform has as one of its top recommendations the diversion of the mentally ill away from lock-ups and into treatment facilities where their behavioral health needs can be more effectively addressed. Only a few of the larger and more prosperous counties in the state have such facilities now.
“Deflection and diversion resources are not available in all areas of the state, particularly in rural communities, and statute offers no guidance on their use as arrest and jail alternatives,” says the report from the Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration.
The task force, which set out to find who is in Michigan's jails and why, reports that local sheriffs are frustrated that the job of housing the mentally ill falls upon them, with few resources provided to treat those inmates.
They also complain about the long jail stays of defendants who must go through mental evaluations and the restoration of competency before they can stand trial.
The task force recommends that local sheriffs be allowed to partner with mental health agencies to divert those with behavioral needs — both before and after arrest — away from the justice system into treatment programs.
Officers should be trained to screen for mental illness and empowered to take individuals who exhibit its signs directly to a treatment facility, rather than to jail.
For the mentally ill who do end up in jail, regular in-house treatment should be provided by professionals therapists and psychiatrists.
Misdemeanor defendants should be diverted from competency hearings altogether, and instead be referred to local mental health centers.
Along with adopting the report’s criminal justice recommendations, Michigan should commit to rebuilding its mental health treatment system.
During the Engler administration in the 1990s, many of the state’s mental hospitals were shut down amid cries from advocates that they were little more than warehouses where patients were heavily medicated and forgotten.
That was true. But when they closed, there were few places to take the patients, many of whom ended up homeless on the streets or inmates in jails and prisons.
Investing the money in building a network of in-patient and out-patient treatment centers accessible to every county in the state would be costly, but ultimately would save money from prison and jail budgets.
And it would offer the mentally ill who run afoul of the law some hope of reclaiming their lives.