Opinion: Push Is on to Reduce Incarceration in Champaign County While Also Providing Meaningful Reentry Options for Adults with Mental Illness

June 5, 2016


By Bruce K. Barnard, Sheila Ferguson and Allen Jones

Call it what you will—jail overcrowding, criminal justice reform, a mental health crisis in our jails, mass incarceration or chronic recidivism. All have been the subject of discussions both nationally and locally. The simple fact is there are too many people in our jails and prisons who do not need to be there. As a society, we pay a high cost for poor outcomes.

Our criminal-justice system was not intended, and was not designed, to fill the role we have asked it to fill.

Our attendance at the national Stepping Up conference confirmed what we already knew: that in most jurisdictions, a jail or prison is the largest facility housing people with a mental illness.

About 2.2 million adults are incarcerated in the U.S. nationally, about half of those in state prisons. More than 60 percent of those in local jails have a mental illness (National Institute of Mental Health). This did not occur overnight; it is the result of a number of policy decisions and trends occurring for decades.

In a recent editorial, Newt Gingrich and Van Jones write “When governments closed state-run psychiatric facilities in the late 1970s, they didn’t replace them with community care, and by default, the mentally ill often ended up in jails. The estimated number of inmates with mental illness outstrips the number of patients in state psychiatric hospitals by a factor of 10.”

People with a mental illness are incarcerated at higher rates than the generalpopulation, for a longer period of time, and have more challenges with reentry. For many, incarceration exacerbates the symptoms of their mental illness, creating a cycle of declining health and frequent incarceration.

Thankfully, we now have productive community partnerships developing between criminal-justice authorities, behavioral health providers and community stakeholders to pursue the goal of reducing incarceration and providing meaningful reentry options for people with mental illness.

Reforms that cross multiple complex systems do not lend themselves to single system solutions, but they are the only way to lead real and sustainable change. Our collaborative approach to this problem in Champaign County is based on a six-step process:

1. Develop commitment from leaders and stakeholders.

2. Establish effective screening and assessment for mental health problems.

3. Use data to understand the nature of the current problem.

4. Evaluate our processes and local services for those involved with the criminal justice system.

5. Establish priorities and seek the resources necessary to implement them.

6. Continually monitor our progress.

Champaign County is emerging as a leader in a national effort to reduce incarceration and improve outcomes for re-entry. A Reentry Council, with case management and support services from Community Elements, has been working for more than two years to reduce recidivism among those coming home from incarceration.

Law enforcement has embraced training to provide tools and strategies for responding to people with mental illness. Community mental-health and substance-abuse providers are on site at the jail to provide screening, assessment and linkage to services. A Crisis Response Task Group is engaged in a comprehensive planning process to reduce and improve outcomes for people with mental illness at all system levels from law enforcement to re-entry.

Real and sustainable solutions that improveour communities, as well as the outcomes for those engaged with the criminal- justice system, will be challenging. What is required are shared goals and cooperative efforts among law enforcement, jail and prison administration; the judiciary; community health providers; consumer and advocacy groups; legislators; local officials; and concerned citizens.

The planning processes are underway—what we need is continued commitment from stakeholders and community support. In the next few months, we will be holding a series of meetings with the public and community groups seeking input on solutions to reduce the number of people with mental illness who are incarcerated in Champaign County. Please make your voice heard.

Bruce K. Barnard is on the faculty of Eastern Illinois University. He has 40 years experience in substance abuse, mental health, and criminal-justice re-entry services. Sheila Ferguson is theCEO of Community Elements and a licensed clinical social worker with more than 25 years experience working in community mental-health services. Allen Jones is the chief deputy and a 26-year veteran of the Champaign County Sheriff’s Office.

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