When Courts, Jails and Mental Illness Intersect

Individuals suffering from mental illness cycling in and out of the justice system is a complicated and problematic issue. Officials are starting to take a closer look at this problem on a local and national level.

An article in Southern Maryland Newspapers Online takes an in depth look at mental illness as well as the impact and involvement of local law enforcement, court systems and jails. As reported on Southern Maryland Newspapers Online:

“This is not a cookie-cutter type of program,” [Gary] Barton [executive director of the problem-solving courts of Maryland] said. “We put a lot of time and resources in to ensure that we direct a person to the community resources that will get them to address the needs that they have … because it doesn’t take a million studies to understand if somebody doesn’t have a job, how are they going to live? They’re going to steal, which puts them right back in the criminal justice system.”

In Maryland, Baltimore city and Harford and Prince George’s counties are homes to mental health courts. In fiscal 2012, they had an enrollment of 79, 27 and 566, respectively, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Participants in the program must go before a judge on a regular basis to show they have been fulfilling their requirements, like taking medications, abstaining from alcohol and other drugs, earning a general equivalency diploma certificate — a GED — and securing employment.

If they don’t, they receive on-the-spot sanctions, which Barton said could range from the judge’s expressing disappointment to a weekend in jail.

While the mental health courts provided some help for those suffering from mental illness that enter into the criminal justice system, they do not reach everyone. The article also touches upon some of the problems that arise when individuals with mental illnesses end up in local jails rather than in treatment:

The 2013 State Legislation report from the National Alliance on Mental Illness states, “Jails and prisons are neither designed nor funded to provide mental health treatment, yet with the erosion of public mental health services, they have increasingly become de facto mental health facilities.”

NAMI statistics from 2010 report that just 19 percent of adults living with serious mental illnesses in Maryland receive services from the state’s public mental health system, while nationally in 2008, 31 percent of female and 14 percent of male jail inmates had a serious mental illness.

Further, the report states, lack of appropriate treatment causes inmates, who are vulnerable to abuse and “disproportionately” subject to solitary confinement, to decompensate.

For an example the article looks at St. Mary’s County Detention Center where on average 50 percent of inmates have a mental illness, from mood disorders to serious psychotic illnesses. Capt. Michael Merican, Warden/Commander for St. Mary’s County Detention Center shares that “his jail has become the largest mental health institution in the county”:

Of the 243 inmates housed at the St. Mary’s jail on June 18, 2014, 114 of them, or 47 percent, were dealing with some kind of mental problem, Merican said. One day a year before, the snapshot number was 53 percent.

It’s common for the jail’s staff to encounter inmates whose mental problems transcend the scope of available resources, he said. But there’s nowhere else for them to go.

For more information read the full article on Southern Maryland Newspapers Online and previous coverage on national efforts to reduce the number of individuals with mental health issues in jail on Conduit Street.

Management of local jails will be discussed at MACo’s Winter Conference held January 7-9, 2015 at the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay Hotel in Cambridge, MD. The session  “10 Things You Don’t Know About Running a County Jail” will focus on the fundamentals the fundamentals of managing a county jail and the comprehensive, innovative, and effective services they provide to prisoners and the surrounding communities.

More information about MACo’s Winter Conference: