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Jails have become overrun with many who are considered mentally ill

In a 2006 United States Bureau of Justice Statistics poll, 56% of state prison inmates and 64% of local inmates were said to be suffering from some sort of mental illness. Mental health experts today say those numbers are too dated may have been grossly underreported even then.

We see the effects of uncared for mental illnesses in the news almost daily. Around the country and here at home, hardly a few days go by without hearing a tragic story of murder-suicide, rape, or other crimes against the innocent perpetrated by someone with an untreated mental illness. The chief psychiatrist for Allegheny County’s Behavior Assessment Unit, a subdivision of the criminal justice system, says that she has seen an increase in the number of mentally ill inmates since the South Fayette psychiatric institution, Mayview, closed its doors five years ago in 2008. She tells reporters that if the hospital hadn’t closed, some of its patients would have never left the state-run facility. And, as you can imagine, most jails and prisons are not built to hold, let alone treat, the mentally ill.

The following information was published by the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2006. Again, many mental health professionals agree that these numbers are significantly lower than they should be and skewed due to lack of reporting or misdiagnoses.

This past May, the U.S. Department of Justice said that it would begin to seriously investigate the treatment of Pennsylvania’s mentally ill after it came to light that patients at Cresson State Hospital were regularly locked in their cells from anywhere between 22 hours per day to several years at a time. In July, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) spoke at a Pittsburgh convention for autism and told those in attendance that mental health professionals are not to blame, that “They didn’t ask for this…They’re doing what they can with what they’ve got.” Another professional in the field, a senior psychiatrist from the Arkansas Division of Medical Services and professor at the University of Arkansas, says that when prisons are able to provide care for the mentally ill, it isn’t entirely what they need, much in part because the medications they use are outdated or in short supply.

Experts in the field point to a lack of communication between those providing treatment and the criminal justice system, and say that coordination of services is essential if we are going to start helping people. Allegheny County’s chief psychiatrist says that a “forensic mental health service” should be implemented for offenders who are released on probation. Such a program would allow probation officers to be directly notified and given specific information if an offender fails to comply with a treatment sentence or “program.”

Former trial lawyer and current judge, Beth Lazzara, has taken on the task of overseer to Pittsburgh’s mental health court. Despite a consistently full docket in mental-health court from week to week, Lazzara knows that there are people in the “system” who are not getting the help they need and could greatly benefit from mental health court. The judge has personally transferred countless offenders from criminal court to mental health court after reviewing their cases and making an educated decision. She also admits that some offenders who she has recommended be transferred to mental health court have declined due to the stigma that surrounds mental illness, but that she is seriously considering renaming the court.

As with anything else mental health-related, funds are limited and the court cannot necessarily provide what Lazzara calls the “full range of services” to people with certain mental illnesses like autism, Asperger’s, and mental retardation. Judge Lazzara says that “It’s the saddest thing in the world” to see inmates with mental illnesses stuck in jail for months at a time, condition worsening and health deteriorating, as they wait for beds in community treatment centers to come available.

Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “Police, courts grapple with the right approach to mentally ill offenders” 24 September 2013

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