A new national survey shows the number of mentally ill prison inmates is growing and the criminal justice system is not prepared to handle the influx.
The lack of inpatient mental health facilities is causing a crisis inside the country's jails, according to the survey released Thursday by Public Citizen and the Treatment Advocacy Center (PDF) .
More than a third of 230 county jails surveyed report that inmates with serious mental illness made up at least 6% or their population. Approximately 17% of the country's 2.3 million inmates are thought to have serious mental illness. The number of state psychiatric beds decreased by 14% from 2005 to 2010, according to figures from the Treatment Advocacy Center, falling from 50,509 to 43,318 over that period.
"This is something that we should all be ashamed about, and the public needs to be educated about because it's not moral, it's not ethical, and it can be addressed,” said Tom Dart, the sheriff of Cook County in Illinois and overseer of Cook County Jail, the largest county facility in the country. The jail houses about 9,000 people daily. An estimated 1 in 3 of them suffers from a mental illness.
The survey concludes that programs need to be implemented to train police officers to identify and de-escalate events involving those with mental health issues. It also calls for more funding to increase the number of inpatient psychiatric beds at mental health facilities across the country.
Dart has become a national figure by instituting a number of reforms aimed at providing care to those in need. In 2013, he began a 24-hour mental health hotline to counsel ex-inmates and the families of current mentally ill inmates. The jail also screens all pre-bond detainees for mental illness. Dart converted a former boot camp facility to a center that provides mental health services and job readiness training to low-level offenders.
The study released Thursday also recommends implementing:
• Diversion programs to prevent the mentally ill from entering the criminal justice system in the first place
• Systems that screen individuals with serious mental illnesses in jails and channel them for mental health treatment
• Programs that prevent recidivism