Dane County doesn’t need a larger jail. It needs greater investment in community-based mental health treatment. It needs supported employment, affordable housing and preventive services to help keep people with mental illnesses from being incarcerated.
While the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Dane County agrees the current jail needs an upgrade to make it safer and more humane for inmates and staff, we strongly disagree on the need to plan for as many inmates with mental illnesses in the jail as our system now incarcerates.
The county would better serve nonviolent offenders with mental illnesses by reducing the jail population instead of expanding its capacity, as outlined in the Mead & Hunt jail update study.
We know that with a smaller jail population comes a smaller jail, which saves money in construction and staffing. This savings in other cities has paid for community-based alternatives to keep nonviolent offenders with mental illnesses from being jailed as our automatic response to infractions.
Further, approving expansion of jail capacity shows increased reliance on the jail to provide treatment to persons with mental illnesses. This is counter-productive because these settings often exacerbate psychiatric symptoms. It is fiscally irresponsible.
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A more responsible and humane strategy is to invest more in crisis intervention training for law enforcement and corrections officers, mobile crisis response teams, community-based mental health treatment programs, and mental health jail courts. These measures are more cost-effective and have been shown to reduce arrests, jail days and hospital stays.
Research shows crisis intervention training reduces the likelihood of people with mental illnesses going to jail when they have police contact. This leads to improved outcomes for the individual in crisis and better investment of county dollars than sending nonviolent mentally ill people to jail.
Mobile crisis response teams can help prevent unnecessary stays in hospitals and jails, which saves money and connects people to the community mental health system.
The county also should direct more resources to expansion of Journey Mental Health Center’s Community Treatment Alternatives jail diversion program for people with mental illnesses. Data show that those who completed three years of this treatment spent 73 percent less time incarcerated in the three years after admission than they did in the three years prior to admission. Additionally, 89 percent of the clients who completed their court requirements have elected to continue treatment, which reduces the likelihood of future police contact.
Dane County should look at the success of similarly sized Richland County, South Carolina. About 83 percent of all mental health court graduates have had no further commitments or arrests since successful completion of its program. It is successes like this that provide hope for reducing the number of people with mental illnesses in jail while improving jail conditions for those inside. Any facility changes that move forward should promote these goals.
The community has a chance to express its opposition to this unwise jail expansion project when the issue comes back to Dane County Board in June. Please speak out in favor of policies that invest our tax dollars in effective prevention, not costly jail construction.
Wallace is executive director of the Dane County Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness