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PRISONS | MENTAL ILLNESS

Bipartisan bill seeks to foster jail alternatives for people with mental illness

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Fox Lake Correctional Institution

The state’s system for diverting those with drug and alcohol addiction away from the prison system would be extended to some with mental illness — a group that makes up more than four in 10 of the state’s prisoners — under a bipartisan bill brought Tuesday before the Assembly Corrections Committee.

Unlike much of the contentious legislation advancing through the Republican-controlled Legislature, the bill has a chance of being signed into law by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who has sought pathways to reduce Wisconsin’s prison population.

Under the bill, counties and tribes would be eligible to apply for treatment alternatives and diversion grants to create mental health courts, similar to drug courts and veterans treatment courts but addressing only people with mental illnesses.

Those mental health courts, which already exist in several Wisconsin counties, would be critical for alleged nonviolent offenders accused or convicted of low-level crimes who have mental health issues, bill co-author Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, said Tuesday.

“We have not provided enough support to the Department of Corrections to best care for individuals with mental health conditions in custody, while at the same time the number of inmates with a mental health diagnosis is growing,” Goyke said.

State Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee

Goyke

Money is already set aside for treatment alternatives and diversion programs — the bill would add mental health courts to the list of grant-eligible programs.

The bill has the backing of psychologists and criminal justice experts who said Tuesday that incarceration is typically more detrimental than restorative for people with mental illnesses.

“Our ability to meet their treatment needs in prisons and jails is highly limited,” Cecelia Klingele, a University of Wisconsin Law School professor who studies criminal justice policy, said in an interview Tuesday, adding that the restrictive and punitive nature of prisons sometimes exacerbates symptoms of some mental health conditions.

Prisons are disproportionately made up of people with mental health issues ranging from moderate to severe.

“The largest mental health treatment facilities in our state are not in our mental health institutions,” psychologist Dr. Bruce Erdmann said Tuesday. “It’s in our prisons.”

The statistics say as much: Department of Corrections documents show 41% of people housed in state correctional facilities have mental illnesses. Experts say that number is probably low.

“Although most people who struggle with mental health-related conditions aren’t involved in the criminal system, there are a disproportionate number of people in the system who do struggle with various mental health conditions,” Klingele said.

And for those who do struggle with mental health, Klingele said, mental health courts would provide a promising and ethical solution.

“Finding a way to hold people accountable for criminal behavior and help them receive treatment when it’s available is an important way to deal humanely with people who are struggling,” she said.

Cecelia Klingele

Cecelia Klingele teaches courses in criminal law, Constitutional criminal procedure, criminal justice administration, policing, and sentencing and corrections at the University of Wisconsin Law School.

Goyke co-authored the bill with Sen. Andre Jacque, R-De Pere, and Rep. Paul Tittl, R-Manitowoc, whose written testimonies addressed the number of people who would be left out of the criminal justice system under the new bill.

Besides keeping people’s records clean, Wisconsin Department of Justice statistics show treatment alternatives and diversion programs could keep more money in the state coffers. National fiscal conservatives, including Grover Norquist, have advocated in recent years for reducing prison populations as a way to save taxpayer dollars.

Based on an analysis of treatment and diversion participants from 2014 to 2018, the state Department of Justice found Wisconsin saves more than $4 for every dollar invested in treatment courts and close to $9 for every dollar invested in diversion programs.

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the bill.

Emily Hamer's favorite stories of 2021 include coverage of Afghan refugees, criminal justice

Criminal justice and county government reporter Emily Hamer is most proud of her coverage of the arrival of roughly 13,000 Afghan refugees at a military base in Wisconsin. 

Earlier this year, she also exposed concerning conditions within the state prison system during COVID-19 outbreaks last fall, including that some prisoners were put in the same cells as those who were exposed to the virus. She also explored the lasting mark the pandemic has left on the criminal justice system. 

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