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Pennsylvania Launches First-in-Nation Stepping Up Technical Assistance Center Focused on Helping Counties Reduce Number of People in Jail with Mental Illnesses

October 19, 2018

By CSG Justice Center Staff

Photo of PA Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel speakingSecretaries of Pennsylvania’s Department of Health, Department of Corrections, and others launched a first-of-its-kind resource center on Oct. 15 in Philadelphia focused on helping counties reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in jail through research-driven approaches.

The Stepping Up Technical Assistance Center, established by the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency and administered by the CSG Justice Center, will use in-person and distance-based trainings to improve county jail officials’ ability to identify mental illnesses among those admitted to their jails, as well as strengthen their data collection and establish a baseline of performance measures to track their progress toward getting people the treatment they need.

“This problem has been decades in the making, but it’s also solvable if we take a systems-wide approach,” said John Wetzel (pictured above), secretary of the state’s Department of Corrections. “In order to get there, we need to understand approaches that work, create a roadmap for success, and track our progress. Achieving those goals is exactly what the Stepping Up Technical Assistance Center is designed to support, and I’m proud that Pennsylvania is the first to launch something like this.”

In April 2016, the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, the Department of Corrections, the Department of Human Services, and the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania launched Stepping Up Pennsylvania—a statewide effort bringing together county leaders, legislators, and other key stakeholders from across the state to tackle the prevalence of mental illnesses in jails. This represents the state’s commitment to Stepping Up—a national movement to mobilize local and state leaders to commit to reducing the number of people who have mental illnesses in jails. Across the country, more than 450 counties—including 29 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties—have joined Stepping Up and are committed to addressing this issue. The Stepping Up Initiative was founded by The CSG Justice Center, that National Association of Counties (NACo), and the American Psychiatric Foundation Association (APAF).

“Some Pennsylvania counties have already made some great gains toward addressing the crisis locally, including training criminal justice officials to identify and respond to people who have mental illnesses and pursuing alternatives to incarceration that connect people to treatment,” said Douglas Hill, the executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania. “The Stepping Up Technical Assistance Center will serve as an integral hub of resources as counties continue on their paths toward success.”

Millions of times every year, people who have mental illnesses are booked into jails. The percentage of people who have mental illnesses in jails is three to six times higher than that of the general public. Many of these people stay in jail longer than people without mental illnesses, have poor access to treatment, and return to jail at higher rates than the average incarcerated person, negatively affecting families and communities and straining local budgets.

“The Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency has made a firm commitment to combat this issue, and today’s launch further illustrates our commitment to supporting local planning efforts” said Derin Myers, acting executive director of the agency. “Lessons learned from the Pennsylvania Stepping Up Technical Assistance Center can inform future state-level action to examine what can be done to confront this issue.”

Some solutions to identified local needs could include addressing barriers to data and information sharing, enhancing law enforcement capacity and partnerships with behavioral health agencies, and filling in gaps in essential care and supports.

Photo of Dr. Rachel Levine

“It is essential that people realize that mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and addiction are medical conditions,” said Dr. Rachel Levine (pictured right), secretary of the Department of Health. “We need to help those who are dealing with these medical conditions. Pennsylvania is at the forefront of doing that. The Technical Assistance Center will allow us to determine the ways in which we can further help those who are struggling with these conditions and help to share important information across the state.”

“Too often assumptions are made about people with mental illness, including that they are dangerous. By incarcerating rather than helping individuals access treatment, mental illness is criminalized and further stigmatized,” said Department of Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller. “A comprehensive approach is needed to help counties build community responses to meet this challenge head-on and to set people up —especially those with the most significant mental health conditions — for success and help meet all their medical and social needs so they can lead healthy, productive lives.”

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, the van Ameringen Foundation, and the Staunton Farm Foundation have also played a valuable role in Stepping Up Pennsylvania by creating opportunities to help specific counties apply Stepping Up’s data-driven framework and amplify their experience across the Commonwealth.

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