Op/Ed: The wrong people are in jail

By Kathi Cozzone, Chester County Commissioner

Chester County Commissioner Kathi Cozzone

If your child or spouse or parent had a mental illness, addiction or developmental disability, would you want them in jail or somewhere that could help them get better?

County jails and taxpayers dollars are increasingly being used to detain pre-trial offenders and house inmates who suffer from such issues; the majority of which do not pose a public safety risk.

Simply stated, county jails are the largest mental health facilities in our country, and Chester County is no exception.

Although offenders must be held accountable for their actions, most of these individuals have not committed serious crimes. Statistics indicate the mentally ill will spend two-and-a-half to eight times longer in jail than their non-mentally ill counterparts, so a more effective use of our limited resources is to safely provide treatment and support to those with mental health and substance abuse issues, to enhance the possibility of them becoming productive members of society.

A majority of county jail inmates will eventually return to the community, and if mental health and substance abuse issues remain untreated, they are very likely to cycle back into the system through the county jail, again and again, costing taxpayers money and having negative effects on families, community safety and future generations; things that affect you and your children.

Taxpayer dollars could be better spent to serve the needs of these individuals and the community. The average cost of incarceration in Chester County Prison is approximately $37,000 annually, compared with many community-based alternatives that are estimated to cost less than half of that amount and that can produce effective supports and services. Counties nationwide spend nearly $100 billion annually on health care for inmates and in Chester County 50 percent are pre-trial detainees.

Counties are the primary provider of criminal justice, and jail operations with more than 80 percent of Pennsylvania sentences are served at the county level, either in jail, on probation, or in county intermediate punishment. Of the approximately 37,000 inmates that were in Pennsylvania’s county prisons on an average day in 2014, more than 11,500 had a mental illness and around 4,000 had a serious mental illness. Approximately half of those with serious mental illness who recycle into the criminal justice system have not committed new crimes; rather, they have been unable to comply with the requirements of probation and parole.  How is incarcerating them assisting with providing them care and serving our community?

Adding to the problem, is the shortage of psychiatric, or forensic, beds in state hospitals for county inmates who have mental illness and developmental disabilities. For perspective, there are just 237 forensic beds available throughout the state, and about 250 inmates waiting for services to become available while they remain imprisoned – where their symptoms can become increasingly significant – until they can receive appropriate treatment.  Once placed on the list for hospitalization, the average wait time is substantial, and, in Chester County, can be 15 months or longer.

How do we fix this? The state and counties are already taking important steps to address this issue, but more support and assistance must be provided.

A collaborative initiative between the state and counties is needed to effectively address the shortage of forensic beds, with assistance and involvement from the governor, legislators and policy makers.

Greater focus must be placed on treatment and restoration services within the prison system, including expanded options to allow mentally ill, addicted and developmentally disabled individuals to obtain care and treatment in the community rather than prison.

And with millions of jail bookings across America involving a person with a mental health condition each year, the collaboration between law enforcement and the mental health system has never been more important.  Last year, Chester County introduced an intensive Police Crisis Intervention Team training course for our law enforcement officials, a program that has been proven to increase public safety, divert people with mental illness from the criminal justice system and decrease officer injuries.

Effective strategies, supports and services must be provided to control the need for incarceration and reduce reentry into the criminal justice system. We must change the perception of who is in jail and seek understanding of special populations and unique circumstances so that positive reform and proper return on investment of taxpayer dollars can take place.

Simply stated, prisons are not the place for many of these individuals. Society must embrace diversion options that provide care and treatment, as well as every possible tool in an effort to improve lives, use resources more appropriately and build safer communities. We should use incarceration for its intended purpose – to protect the public – and focus on caring for the vulnerable individuals in our communities to ensure a positive outcome for everyone.

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