The Wrong People Are In Jail: Why You Should Care

If your loved one had a mental illness or a developmental disability or suffered from addiction, would you want them in jail or somewhere that could help them get better?

County jails, and your tax dollars, are increasingly being used to house pre-trial defendants and inmates who suffer from such issues; the majority of whom do not pose a public safety risk. Sadly, county jails are now the largest mental health facilities in our nation.

Although offenders must be held accountable for their actions, most of these people have not committed serious crimes. We need a more effective use of our limited resources to safely provide treatment and support to those with mental health and substance abuse issues to enhance the odds of them becoming productive members of society.

Counties nationwide spend nearly $100 billion annually on healthcare for inmates and roughly 65 percent are those awaiting trial. As far back as 2004, Pennsylvania had twice as many mentally ill people in jail (12,081) as in hospital psychiatric units (6,128).

In 2010, when I took office, the average population at our 711-bed county jail was 511. In 2016, it was 636. And just last month it was 675. It costs property taxpayers more than $25,000 a year to house just one inmate. Shockingly, nearly half of our inmates are on some type of psychotropic medication.

Counties are the primary provider of criminal justice and jail operations. More than 80 percent of Pennsylvania sentences are served at the county level, either in jail, on probation, or in county intermediate punishment. Of the approximately 37,000 inmates that were in Pennsylvania’s county prisons on an average day in 2014, 11,714 had a mental illness and 4,097 had a serious mental illness. How is incarcerating them assisting with their care and serving our community?

Adding to the problem is the shortage of psychiatric, or forensic, beds in state hospitals for county inmates who have mental health issues. There are just 237 forensic beds available throughout the state, including Torrance State Hospital in Derry, and about 250 inmates waiting for appropriate services to become available while they remain imprisoned – where their symptoms can become increasingly significant.

Locally, we have taken steps to address these challenges, through Drug Court and counseling services for the addicted and the disabled, but more support and assistance is needed. A collaborative initiative between the state and counties is needed to effectively address the shortage of forensic beds.

Moreover, greater focus must be placed on treatment and restoration services within the prison system, including expanded options to allow mentally ill, addicted and developmentally disabled individuals to obtain care and treatment in the community rather than prison. Effective best practices and joint training for prison administrators, county mental health staff, the judiciary, law enforcement, the medical community and others, in close partnership with the Commonwealth, should be immediately implemented.

Prisons are simply not the place for many of these people. We must change the perception of who is in jail and better understand these special populations for a better return on our tax dollars. More effective caring for the damaged and weak is not only the right thing to do, but it has a permanent positive effect on the lives of everyone in our community.

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(Ted Kopas serves on the Comprehensive Behavioral Health Task Force for the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania. This article appeared in the December 31, 2017, edition of the Tribune-Review)