April 4, 2017

The Sentinel

By Joshua Vaughn

Each year an estimated 2 million people with serious mental illness are admitted into county jails and prisons in the United States, according to Richard Cho, Council of State Governments Justice Center director of behavioral health.

On Tuesday, Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel and Cho announced that Pennsylvania would join the Stepping Up Initiative aimed at reducing that number and connecting people with needed services.

“The trend we are seeing across the country … is a growing number of people who have serious mental illness who are in jails,” Cho said. “They are not only coming into jails at a higher rate, but once booked into jails they actually spend twice as long as people without mental illness just awaiting trial in jail.”

Stepping Up is a national initiative that began in May 2015 and calls on county governments to take on the issue of mental health and incarceration.

Cho said the prevalence of mental illness in the general population is about 5 percent.

However, roughly 17 percent of people in local jails and prisons are diagnosed with a mental illness, Cho said.

Nearly 80 percent of those people also have issues with substance abuse, he said.

“You’re talking about people with serious mental illnesses, but also additional challenges of having substance use and addiction issues,” Cho said.

A sample resolution for counties to fill out and sign on the Stepping Up website provides steps for counties to follow.

The first step involves collecting data on the prevalence of individuals with mental health issues entering the criminal justice system and identifying their risk of recidivism.

“You can’t solve a problem you can’t see,” Cho said. “If you don’t have the numbers, it’s impossible to know if you are making a difference and exactly how much more resources you need.”

This is followed by examining the local capacity for treatment within the community.

Finally counties are asked to develop and execute a data-driven plan to reduce the number of people with mental health issues from entering prison and track the results.

More than 325 counties nationwide, including Dauphin, Franklin and Fulton locally, have passed Stepping Up resolutions.

“Right now, jails and police are our primary and first response to mental illness,” Cho said. “That’s a situation I think the public is beginning to confront in a major way.”

Source: JusticeCenter