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Apr 05

Editorial: ‘Stepping up’ on Prison Reform

The Intelligencer

“This is the largest psychiatric hospital in the state of Pennsylvania.”

The guy making that crack about jail isn’t a psychiatrist or some sort of credentialed mental health expert. He’s Bruce Herdman, chief of medical operations for the Philadelphia Department of Prisons.

The point Herdman was making to a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer is that prisons in the city are loaded with people suffering from mental illness. In fact, some 40 percent of inmates are on psychotropic medications, he said, and 17 percent of those are victims of what’s considered a serious mental illness — schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression, to name a few.

State prisons are similarly afflicted: About 29 percent of inmates are considered mentally ill.

This isn’t new news. It’s widely known that mentally ill people often land in jail, and more so than other offenders return to prison again and again.

What’s new is a statewide effort to get mentally ill offenders appropriate help in appropriate facilities. The Stepping Up Initiative is led by the Council of State Governments Justice Center. With support from the state departments of Corrections and Human Services, the initiative’s goal is to determine how mentally ill people interact with the criminal justice system and then figure out how to address the issues that are landing them there. The hope is to reduce the number of mentally ill people in Pennsylvania prisons without compromising public safety.

Great idea. The plan for implementing the idea is to get buy-in on a county-by-county basis. This will require county boards of commissioners to adopt a resolution committing resources to gathering the necessary data. Once information has been gathered on their populations, the initiative calls for counties to create an action plan.

As reported by the Inquirer, “that might include changes to policing practices that would prioritize treatment over arrest when appropriate; more support for programs designed to divert people from prison, such as mental health courts; and increased resources for community-based behavioral health services.”

And so we encourage the commissioners in Bucks and Montgomery counties to join the effort. There are a variety of reasons to do so, beginning with treating mentally ill offenders in a more effective and humanitarian way. Certainly warehousing them isn’t working, as evidenced by their higher-than-average rate of recidivism.

But there are important economic reasons as well. The fewer people we lock up, the lower the corrections bill for taxpayers.

In theory, the initiative makes sense. Why saddle taxpayers with the cost of routing mentally ill offenders through the criminal justice system and then committing them to a costly and ultimately ineffective jail term when both the offenders and taxpayers would be better served by diverting them to mental health services?

Encouragingly, Bucks officials already are considering ways to intercept offenders in need of mental health services before they land in jail. “We don’t need a resolution,” Bucks Commissioner Robert Loughery told us. “We’re already resolved to do this.”

Source: JusticeCenter

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