By Samantha Melamed
Bruce Herdman, chief of medical operations for the Philadelphia Department of Prisons, sometimes describes the county jails this way: “This is the largest psychiatric hospital in the state of Pennsylvania.”
So, on Tuesday, state officials will announce a multiyear initiative aimed at safely reducing the number of people with mental illness in Pennsylvania jails — a problem that has so far been intractable in the face of criminal-justice reform efforts.
“I’ve been talking about and frustrated with these issues for well over a decade,” said Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, who manages a state prison population that, on any given day, is likely to include more than 14,000 people with mental illness. “This process is really the brightest glimmer of hope I’ve seen, where it actually appears that we have a shot at coming up with some way to finally have an impact on this population.”
It’s a county-by-county effort, though a handful of states, including Ohio and California, have also launched statewide Stepping Up initiatives.