Can Pennsylvania Find a Way out for Thousands of Mentally Ill Inmates Languishing in County Jails?
By Samantha Melamed
Bruce Herdman, chief of medical operations for the Philadelphia Department of Prisons, sometimes describes the county jails this way: “This is the largest psychiatric hospital in the state of Pennsylvania.”
Forty percent of Philadelphia inmates are on psychotropic medications; 17 percent have what’s considered a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression. At the state level, 29 percent of inmates have a mental illness. People with mental illness also stay longer in jail, and are more likely to return.
So, on Tuesday, state officials will announce a multiyear initiative aimed at safely reducing the number of people with mental illness in Pennsylvania jails — a problem that has so far been intractable in the face of criminal-justice reform efforts.
The Stepping Up Initiative, led by the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center with support from the state Departments of Corrections and Human Services, aims to gather comprehensive data on how people with mental illness interact with the criminal justice system, then develop an evidence-based approach to addressing whatever’s landing them there.