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An article published in the “Daily Tar Heel” presented a dangerous reality growing in our US prisons – the over representation of adults with mental illness in jail – as the local government in North Carolina recently adopted a new prison reform program.
In the United States, two million adults with a mental illness are arrested every year and prevalence rates of serious mental illness in jails are three to six times higher than for the general public. Also, according to NAMI, most of those prisoners with mental illness are not violent criminals, and at least 83% of jail inmates with a mental illness do not have access to needed treatment.
According to Dr. Miriam Heyman, Program Officer at the Ruderman Family Foundation, “Our society systematically excludes people with mental illness, and disproportionate incarceration is one example of this. We need to treat and accommodate mental illness instead of punishing it, and people in prison deserve treatment just like anybody else.”
In an interview, Deby Dihoff, acting executive director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness in North Carolina, says: “We have more people with mental illness in jails than we do in our hospitals, which says a lot about our policy making.”
A new movement is trying to make a difference. ‘Stepping Up’ is a national initiative aimed at reducing the number of people with mental illness in jails.
The organization claims that almost three-quarters of adults with mental illness in prison have a secondary mental illness involving drug and alcohol use. When this reality stays untreated, these individuals are likely to return to prison.
According to the Stepping Up website, jails spend two to three times more money on adults with mental illnesses that require intervention than on those without these needs, and are failing to formulate effective solutions.
The growing problem is complex. Sources are limited, the illnesses are multiple and a crime has been committed. The new model was designed to tackle the obstacles.
The North Carolina government just launched the Stepping Up initiative involving 400 counties across the nation. The initiative provides a special toolkit to facilitate counties in developing and implementing systems dedicated to end this growing problem. According to them, this model is a data-driven plan that can lead to measurable reductions in the number of people with mental illness in local jails.
The initiative encourages counties to sign a Call to Action to reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in their county jail, commit to sharing lessons learned with other counties in the state and across the country to encourage all county officials, employees, and residents to participate.
It provides guidance and resources to the counties to utilize and with that, the counties can convene a diverse team of decision makers from multiple agencies committed to significantly reducing the number of people with mental illnesses in jails. According to USA Today, the majority of sheriffs and other U.S. jail administrators don’t know the number of people in their custody who are suffering from a mental illness. With the new planning, they can collect and review prevalence numbers and assess individuals’ and their recidivism risk. They examine treatment and service capacity to determine which programs and services are available in the county for people with mental illnesses. They can also identify state policy and funding barriers to minimizing contact with the justice system.
The initiative also involves the community and the commitment of the Sheriff’s office. Together they create a process to track progress using data and information systems, and to report on successes.
The new initiative in N.C aims to reduce the number of arrests in addition to reforming conditions for incarcerated individuals with a mental illness.
“People with mental illness deserve the right to be contributing members of our society”, concludes Heyman. ”They also have the potential to contribute, if they have access to appropriate care and treatment.”
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