Letter to the Editor: Jailing people with mental illness

To the Editor:

In a mental health crisis, people are more likely to encounter police than get medical help. As a result, two million people with mental illness are booked into jails each year. Nearly 15% of men and 30% of women booked into jails have a serious mental health condition.

The vast majority of individuals are not violent criminals - most people in jails have not yet gone to trial, so they are not yet convicted of a crime. The rest are serving short sentences for minor crimes.

Once in jail, many individuals don’t receive the treatment they need and end up getting worse, not better. They stay longer than their counterparts without a mental illness. They are at risk of victimization and often their mental health conditions get worse.

After leaving jail, many no longer have access to needed healthcare and benefits. A criminal record often makes it hard for individuals to get a job or find housing. Many individuals, especially without access to mental health services and supports, wind up homeless, in emergency rooms and often re-arrested. At least 83% of jail inmates with a mental illness did not have access to needed treatment.

Jailing people with a mental illness creates burdens on law enforcement, corrections and state and local budgets. It does not protect public safety, and people who could be helped are being ignored.

Helping people get out of jail and into treatment needs to be a top priority. Everyone needs to have access to a full array of mental health services and supports within their community to help prevent interactions with police. These supports need to include treatment for drug and alcohol conditions, and additional supports need to include housing, education, supported employment and peer and family support.

If individuals do come to the attention of law enforcement, communities need to create options to divert them to treatment and services - before arrest, after arrest and at all points in the justice system. When individuals are in jail, they need to have access to needed medication and support, need to be signed up for health coverage if possible and need to  get help planning their release back into the community to ensure they get back on track.

I strongly believe that by partnering the community with criminal justice leaders, county and state leaders and mental health professionals we can help people with a mental illness get the support and services they need to stay out of jail.

If you are one who is in need of support for a mental health issue and/or addiction or have a comment regarding this article, I may be reached at gottahavehope38@gmail.com.

Respectfully submitted,

Mark Jacobson
Peer Support Specialist
Winona, MN


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