Letter: Working to reduce the number of people with mental illness in jails
A year ago, the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors signed a resolution to participate in the Stepping Up initiative. The initiative, signed by 263 counties, has one lofty goal — reduce the number of adults with mental illness in the criminal justice system.
What has changed in the last year?
Stepping Up is gaining momentum. Last month policymakers, jail administrators, advocates and clinicians from 190 counties, including El Dorado County, attended a national Stepping Up Summit in Washington, D.C. Speakers shared their desire to change the incarceration system and help inmates with mental health issues get the treatment and support they need.
What can our community change?
We have the Board of Supervisors’ commitment, but need a countywide plan to reduce the criminalization of mental illness. Here are six suggestions from Stepping Up and my possible solutions to implement them:
1. Commitment from our area’s leadership. The El Dorado County Board of Supervisors, jail staff, law enforcement and other stakeholders need to create and implement an action plan to reduce the incarcerations of the mentally ill.
2. More transparency around criminal justice statistics and the mentally ill. For example, how many inmates have a mental illness diagnosis in our jail? How many received psychiatric hospital care for a mental health condition while incarcerated? What approaches are used to assess mental illness when booking an inmate? We need to share information online and in the county’s monthly Health and Human Services report at the Mental Health Commission. El Dorado County introduced a new data-driven website called http://www.welldorado.org, an ideal platform to share this information.
3. Create diverse partnerships to bring policy changes and design systematic responses. The South Lake Tahoe Mental Health Cooperative is an effective group of mental health providers, advocates and clinicians. I would like to see jail administration at these monthly meetings.
4. Train more jail personnel in mental health crisis and compassion. Many first responders have had crisis-intervention training. Jail personnel need similar training.
5. Fund policy and programs that connect people to the appropriate criminal justice and behavioral health interventions. As El Dorado County updates its policies, have a diverse team of mental health stakeholders, including jail administrators, review and close potential gaps in services. For example, currently inmates in our jail have difficulty obtaining treatment after being released.
6. Track progress of inmates with mental illness. Track and show decreased incarcerations. Look for the effectiveness of alternative programs and rates of recidivism. Record medication changes, effectiveness and compliance. Many families have loved ones who have been incarcerated for a wrongdoing related to their untreated mental health condition. The entire family agonizes, not just our loved ones.
May is National Mental Health Awareness Month. Stepping Up is multi-year initiative of the Council of State Governments, and stakeholders like NAMI, to reduce the number of people with mental illness in jails.
For more information go to http://www.stepuptogether.org.
NAMI El Dorado County
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