Mentally Ill Inmates at Franklin County Jail Stay Longer

May 13, 2015

By Rick Rouan
The Columbus Dispatch

Mentally-ill inmates at the Franklin County jail stay longer, return more frequently and often aren’t connected with the treatment they need after they leave, according to a new report.

Now, the county and other local groups have to figure out what to do about it.

The Council of State Governments Justice Center will issue a report today to county commissioners on the results of a yearlong look at the mentally ill in the Franklin County jail.

The report identifies steps the county and other organizations can take to help.

“Maybe some of them belong in jail. Many do not,” Commissioner Marilyn Brown said. “Once in jail, though, they don’t get the appropriate treatment.”

The full population of mentally-ill jail inmates still is unknown. Jailers don’t categorize whether inmates are mentally ill when they are booked, the report says, and they don’t have electronic records they can access for the information.

The council used data from the sheriff’s office and the local ADAMH board to determine that 7 percent of people booked into the jail had been treated for a serious mental illness and 25 percent had been treated for alcohol or drug use. National figures, though, suggest the rates could be higher.

The problem seeps into the state prison system as well. More than 20 percent of people in Ohio prisons have been diagnosed with a mental illness, costing taxpayers about $41.7 million in 2014 to pay for mental-health care and medications for 10,596 mentally-ill inmates.

“There are so many implications statewide in this. I think a lot of jail systems should take a look at this,” said Denise Robinson, CEO of the nonprofit Alvis House.

About 60 percent of those with a serious mental illness returned to the Franklin County jail within three years, compared with 51 percent of those who are not mentally ill, according to the report. The mentally ill stay in jail an average of 32 days, compared with 20 days for other inmates.

In some cases, mentally-ill inmates commit a more serious crime in jail, leading to longer stays, said Betsy Johnson, associate executive director at the National Alliance of Mental Illness Ohio.

“These are crimes of survival,” said Michael Daniels, Brown’s policy director.

Johnson said the mentally ill need treatment before they commit a crime. The report also found that more than a third of mentally-ill inmates do not receive treatment in the year after they are released.

“There’s no question that the most cost-effective and humane way to handle the problem is on the front end,” Johnson said.

Costs are part of the equation for the county, too. The jail has a $53 million budget to house, feed, clothe and provide basic medical care for inmates in 2015.

The county could save $5 million to $12 million a year by reducing the number of people in jail with mental illness by 40 percent, Daniels said. That could be used to fund some of the suggestions made in the report.

The report’s recommendations to reduce that population fall into three categories: taking the mentally ill to treatment facilities instead of jail, not sending them to jail to await trial, and providing more intensive treatment in jail and afterward.

The report also recommends more training to help police officers and sheriff’s deputies identify mental illness and recommend area resources. It calls for expanding intervention programs and providing more information to judges who decide whether a person should be jailed or released while awaiting trial. The sheriff’s office also needs to screen for mental illness at booking, according to the report.

Grants might be available for some of the recommendations, Daniels said, though long-term funding sources will be needed.

Franklin County Common Pleas Court Judge Stephen McIntosh said courts need information about a defendant’s mental health earlier to determine if treatment is a better option than jail. Judges must weigh the severity of an offense and whether the inmate is violent before releasing him or her to treatment.

The Franklin County Municipal Court’s mental-health docket has about 40 to 50 people in its program at a given time, and it has room to grow, said Judge David Tyack. It reaches just a few of the 1,900 people who are in the jail at any time. People in the mental-health docket program plead guilty to misdemeanor crimes and are on probation throughout the program, which takes at least two years to complete. They are linked to local mental-health resources and must check in regularly with the court.

The sheriff’s office already has started making some changes, said Chief Deputy Geoff Stobart. It is negotiating for software that would allow deputies to alert local service agencies when their clients are in the jail, and a new jail will include additional mental-health cells.

“The jails unfortunately have become the de facto holding ground for the mentally ill,” Stobart said. “Our jails were not designed to be a mental-health housing facility.”

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