Thursday, September 15, 2011

Taking Responsibility of Our Mentally Ill Inmates

One of my main duties is to run three jail facilities in Palm Beach County.

I take great pride in making sure all of our inmates are treated with respect and fairness while they await trial or serve their sentences.

This is especially true for those suffering from mental illness. 

There are as many as 400-600 people with psychological disorders in our jails at any given time, constituting as much as 20 percent of the estimated 2,800 daily inmate population. We have a full-time staff of psychiatrists, nurses and social workers who provide counseling and medication to treat illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Our jails have become Palm Beach County’s largest mental health institution, where my staff cares for more mentally ill people than any of our local hospitals, halfway houses and clinics combined. Most of these inmates are repeat offenders who come in and out of our jails every year, often for committing minor crimes such as shoplifting or disorderly conduct.

It often costs us two to three times the amount to send a mentally ill person through the criminal justice system as compared to treating the same person outside the system. At roughly $120 a day, taxpayers must pick up the costs for feeding, housing and medicating an inmate with mental illness, as well as pay the salaries of everyone from corrections deputies and psychiatrists to public defenders and judges.

I’m working to change this seemingly endless cycle, not just because it’s so expensive and time consuming, but also because it’s the right thing to do. These individuals are our relatives and neighbors. They are people we see every day in our communities. They deserve to be treated humanely and cared for in the right environment.

Here’s what I am doing as your Sheriff to reform our system:

First, the Sheriff’s Office is working more closely than ever with our community partners to divert and treat the mentally ill before they are booked in our jails. For nonviolent, mentally ill inmates in our facilities, we work with the courts to move many of them out of the jails and into long-term care facilities in community settings where they can successfully overcome barriers upon reentering society.  

Second, we are training our corrections and road deputies to better recognize signs of mental illness and steer people in need of psychological help to hospitals and clinics rather than to our jails. So far, nearly 600 of our 2,200 certified officers have completed a national training program known as Critical Incident Training, or CIT, which provides skills, knowledge and perspective in dealing with critical events involving people with mental illness. 

Third, our Behavior Services Unit is expanding its follow-up to mental health-related crime cases in our community. Our staff of deputies and certified social workers assists families in finding the right resources and treatment for their loved ones with psychological problems who have had brushes with law enforcement.

These are best-practices identified by our accreditation agencies and other experts to divert the mentally ill from detention facilities and the criminal justice system. Because, as we know, once they're in our system, they stay in for a long time. 

Please don’t think that this is an issue unique to Palm Beach County.

Jails from Maine to California are housing the mentally ill largely because they have nowhere else to go. It’s part of the legacy of our country’s deinstitutionalization of mental health facilities. Since the 1960s, fewer individuals with psychological disorders are supervised by health care workers. Many are left to their own devices in maintaining their personal medication regimens.

I firmly believe that we must be at our best when caring for needy people at their worst moments. That’s why I am such an advocate for providing appropriate mental health counseling and medication, as well as for collaborating with our outside partners, to make sure we do all we can for our most vulnerable residents.

Ric Bradshaw is the Palm Beach County Sheriff.