Prisoners with mental illness don’t belong in county jail, report says

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Capital News Service

LANSING —  Overcrowded, loud and stressful, county jails are exasperating the mental health problems of inmates, experts say. 

It’s a challenge local law enforcement officials struggle with.

“We’re here for punishment for breaking the law,” said Oceana County Sheriff Craig Mast. “We’re not here for a safeholding or to keep them in holding.

“If someone is here with a mental health situation, that can really upset our whole jail and really upset our entire facility,” he said.

 A task force, created last year to analyze and reform Michigan’s criminal justice system, has offered a potential solution: provide authorization and funding for diversion and deflection programs for Michigan jails. 

Oceana, Grand Traverse, Mason, Allegan and Mecosta counties are among the counties that provided data for the report by the Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration and Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit, nongovernmental research organization. 

While Michigan arrests are falling, many people are jailed for low-level charges such as failing to appear in court, shoplifting and marijuana possession, the task force concluded. 

Individuals with severe mental illnesses are more likely to be sentenced to jail and were more likely to experience reincarceration, especially for petty crimes, according to Wayne State University’s Center for Behavioral Health and Justice.

The criminal justice system needs to change how it handles mental health, the report said. 

The Wayne State center reports that 23% of people entering Michigan jails had a serious mental illness. The rate went up to 34% in rural jails. 

Sixteen counties, including St. Joseph and Charlevoix counties, took part in the study. 

Treatment for inmates with mental health problems can be hard to come by, the task force reported. Among the reasons are cost and lack of training.

“Getting them treatment can be really expensive because there’s no treatment available locally,”  said Jim Talen, the vice-chair of the Legislative and Human Resources Committee of the Kent County Commission and who serves on the task force. 

“What we saw and what some of us knew already is that jail is the worst place to put someone who is suffering from mental illness,” Talen said.
The task force recommends additional funding for law enforcement agencies to create diversion programs, expand treatment programs and improve mental health screenings when inmates arrive at jail. 

“We usually try to get our Western Michigan Community Mental Health on board and try to work with them,” Mast said. The organization serves Mason, Lake and Oceana counties.

“We try to get the subject placed in a better facility to better treat their mental health issues.”  

The task force suggested a crisis intervention team to increase safety in police encounters with inmates with mental illnesses and to move inmates from the legal system into appropriate mental health treatments.

“For those with mental health problems, there are problems with continuity with care,” said Sheryl Kubiak, dean of Wayne State’s School of Social Work. 

“The conditions of jails — the noisiness, the crowdedness, safety issues — can also affect some of those with mental health issues, and they might not be able to conform with the jail situation well,” Kubiak said.

The Wayne State study concluded that there are positive increases in attitudes towards mentally ill inmates among officers with crisis intervention team training. Those officers also demonstrated more accurate knowledge about psychiatric treatment, it found. 

The task force has offered to guide legislators through decisions on changing policies. 

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