Interactions with the mentally ill pose significant challenges for the criminal justice system — particularly for police officers, local law enforcement officials and city and county jail facilities.
Mental illness increasingly is becoming a criminal justice concern as criminal justice personnel are called upon to respond to those with mental illness even when no crime is committed.
Across the country, jails have become de facto repositories for those suffering from mental illness. With the widespread closing of state mental-health facilities in the 20th century, those with mental illness often have limited options for diagnosis and treatment.
This can lead to involvement with the criminal justice system and time spent behind bars, placing a heavy burden on that system and accomplishing little to ensure the mentally ill get the help they need.
Last fall, the Institute for Predictive and Analytical Policing Science in Tarleton State University’s School of Criminology, Criminal Justice and Strategic Studies received grant funds to examine Tarrant County Jail use.
The focus of this effort has been to examine whether individuals in the jail need to be there.
Jail overuse has the potential to cause harm in a variety of ways, and costs the government and taxpayer quite a bit of money. Estimates range from $90 to $200 per day (or higher) per inmate.
Initial findings of Tarrant County Jail use mirror those common to other county correctional facilities nationwide.
Most offenses committed by those with mental illness are public nuisance concerns or minor crimes.
Put simply, offenders with serious mental-health diagnoses are not responsible for a significant volume of major crimes — murder, aggravated assault, robbery.
Many are in jail for self-medicating with drugs and/or alcohol, raising additional concerns about co-occurring substance use and mental health disorders.
Unfortunately, incarceration can have lasting negative impacts on those with mental illness.
Jails and prisons are not ideal treatment environments and, in many cases, can exacerbate difficulties that result from mental illness.
Furthermore, many mentally ill offenders have issues that go undiagnosed, and they consequently fail to get the treatment necessary to cope with their mental illness and/or substance abuse.
It’s time for a change.
Mentally ill offenders must be diverted from incarceration to alternative programming with a treatment focus.
This is a public and personal safety issue and, when appropriately addressed, will result in significant cost savings.
Tarrant County Jail should not be a detention center for low-risk individuals too poor to post bail or facing mental health challenges that existing community resources can’t manage.
In addition, it is paramount that local police officers and law enforcement officials receive proper training on how to respond to the mentally ill.
As gatekeepers of the criminal justice system, they come in contact with the mentally ill on a daily basis — most often when their behaviors are problematic, scary and even potentially dangerous.
Policymakers and practitioners are working to address these issues. Tarrant County leads the way in this effort.
Next steps include the recommendation of an action plan that makes better use of mental health services and re-envisions the role these programs play in jail time.
Consideration will be given to providing appropriate treatment for jail inmates with serious mental illness, promoting existing jail diversion programs, and establishing careful intake screening and release planning.
These are solid steps in the right direction. Local, state and federal lawmakers from Texas are focused on responding to this issue.
Hopefully, this movement toward treatment instead of incarceration will continue to gain momentum locally and across the nation.
Meghan E. Hollis is director of Tarleton State University’s Institute for Predictive and Analytical Policing Science, one of five institutes within the university’s School of Criminology, Criminal Justice and Strategic Studies.