Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart appeared last night on 60 minutes to illustrate a growing problem with our prisons and jails, Dart shared videos recorded by his staff inside his jail showing mentally ill inmates behaving erratically. Sheriff Dart stated, this is “what happens when we take mentally ill people and we cram them into the criminal justice system, where they’re not supposed to be.”
Dart stated that the jail held at least 2500 inmates with mental illnesses. He characterized prisons and jails as “the new insane asylums.” It was discussed during the interview that many mentally ill inmates do not receive treatment. They are released with pills, but no treatment plan. They quickly become part of our high recidivism rate.
It was conservatively estimated in 2011 that three hundred and fifty thousand inmates with mental illnesses are incarcerated in America’s prisons and jails. This problem started with the closing of state-run hospitals in the 1980s. With the closing of state-run hospitals, people with mental illnesses had nowhere to go and therefore many ended up in jail or prison.
Sheriff Greg Hamilton of Travis County in Austin, Texas, has also commented, “It seems to me that we have criminalized being mentally ill.” He says the average stay of a mentally ill person in a Travis jail is about 50-100 days, but Hamilton says the longest term he’s seen was 258 days.
Some jurisdictions are trying new ways to treat mentally ill inmates. Miami-Dade is planning a “forensic diversion facility.” The program provides a sentencing alternative in cases where the offender has mental health issues. Those entering will begin in a higher-security area, more like a jail, and once stabilized move to a different part of the building for treatment.
In addition, 3,900 officers from Miami-Dade County and most of its municipalities have taken a 40-hour course about recognizing and communicating with a person with mental illnesses. Everyone, deputies, supervisors, 911 police officers, and the corrections officers in the jail have taken this course. As a result of this course, officer-involved shootings have plummeted. The police used to average 20 or 30 officer-involved shootings a year. At least 10 of those were mental health related. During the last ten years, there were only two officer-involved shootings involving individuals with mental health issues. We need to recognize and acknowledge that many mentally ill inmates are not offenders, but rather individuals with serious health issues.