WASHINGTON – Too many mentally ill people end up in jail for minor offenses,and when they are released they soon return because they don't get treatment or support from the community.
Experts in mental illness and corrections explained the problem to a group of about 40 health care professionals and others at a Capitol Hill briefing Wednesday.
State and local governments end up paying more when mentally ill persons are rearrested,often on such minor charges loitering or public urination.
Nearly 15 percent of men and 31 percent of women in jail have serious mental illnesses,according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics,as quoted in a bill that would provide more federal funding to help mentally ill prisoners when they are released.
Mentally ill people often receive Supplemental Security Income,Social Security disability and Medicaid but lose the benefits when they are imprisoned. Many fail to get reinstated when they are released.
Rep. Andre Carson,D-Ind.,and other representatives,introduced H.R. 2829,also known as the Recidivism Reduction Act,to help. Introduced in June,the bill was referred to two committees,neither of which has taken action on it.
The bill would ensure that individuals whose benefits were suspended when they entered prison would receive provisional benefits on the day of their release.
“The presence of so many people in our criminal justice settings creates enormous pressures on federal and state correctional and behavioral systems expenditures and budgets,” said Dr. Fred C. Osher,a community psychiatrist and director of health systems and services policy at the Council of State Governments.
“Prisoners become the institutional homes for these individuals,” Osher said. The mentally ill overcrowd facilities and once they're in jail they stay longer.
When they are released from jail,the former prisoners are apt to end up in halfway houses or on the street,where they don't qualify for benefits. Without immediate access to benefits or adequate planning for their re-entry into society,recidivism is likely.
A man who knows this well is Warden Robert L. Green of the Montgomery County,Md.,Correctional Facility.
Green,who said current programs are “just not enough,” opened his jail up for study.
“I don't want someone to have to go to jail to find a service or a process. I want to use that which is tried and proven,” he said.
Prisoners in Montgomery County have access to two programs,Welcome Home and Re-entry for All. Both help prisoners – whether they have mental illness or not – return to the community safely.
“We are on the very edge of a perfect storm,” Green said. “This is real. I live it every day.”