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Penna countys' task force examined inmates with mental illness, addiction


Last updated 8/29/2016 at 5:37pm

The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania (CCAP) has announced findings and recommendations from a Comprehensive Behavioral Task Force Report detailing the critical issue of alternatives to incarcerating mentally ill and substance abusing offenders.

Statistics suggest that as many as 65 percent of Pennsylvania’s county jail inmates have a substance abuse disorder, 10 to 30 percent suffer from mental illness, and up to 14 percent have serious mental illness. The average cost of incarceration in a county jail is approximately $40,000 annually, compared to many community based alternatives that are estimated to cost less than half of that amount.

“For counties, one of the greatest challenges facing corrections systems is the fast-growing population of inmates with mental illness and untreated or undertreated substance abuse issues. Funding for state and federal human services programs has been on the decline for well over a decade while mandates have increased, with counties expected to assume larger roles without an increase in resources or support,” Franklin County Commissioner and CCAP President Bob Thomas stated.

“The bottom line is that prisons are not the place to care for individuals with mental illness. Currently, county prisons are the largest mental health facilities in our country, serving more than 2.3 million people with serious mental illness. Safely providing treatment and support to those with mental health and substance abuse issues to improve lives and build safer communities is a more effective use of our limited resources. This report provides a comprehensive review, from pre-entry to re-entry, about the types of treatment and diversion that will make a difference in reducing the prevalence of those with mental health diagnoses in our prison system,” according to Dauphin County Commissioner George Hartwick III, chair of CCAP’s Human Services Committee.

Building on several years’ priority work, CCAP members created a Comprehensive Behavioral Health Task Force to study causes, consider best practices, provide education for counties, identify barriers and ultimately develop a plan and recommendations.

Berks County Commissioner Kevin Barnhardt, chair of CCAP’s Courts and Corrections Committee, stated, “Counties understand that this is complex and involves serious issues. We have reached a level of frustration over the inability to address illness in jails due to resource limits at the state level. And, the opioid and prescription drug abuse crisis is further exacerbating the options for providing services to those in jail. This report creates a road map for counties and the required commitment from leaders at all levels and in all walks of life.”

As part of its charge, the task force considered several specific areas, including Medicaid and other coverage, as well as creation of the necessary structures for inmate qualification for health insurance. The task force also examined capacity for services, such as availability of diversion programs, community behavioral health treatment services, availability of medications on release and potential for regionalization of critical service beds.

Risk management, assessment tools and use of data to drive placement decisions were considered, as were the role of crisis intervention and improving staff training. The group also identified needs and concerns of special populations and unique circumstances (e.g., gender and juveniles), with a particular focus on the needs of veterans.

Six main goals are identified in the report, each delineating objectives outlining local efforts, policy change, stakeholder engagement, best practices and further research. Among those goals is to encourage counties to employ successful strategies to control the need for incarceration, such as investments in community-based options. Another goal explores effective supports and services to reduce entry into the criminal justice system and improve outcomes for re-entry. Still another goal seeks to expand training, education and awareness efforts to improve public perception and understanding.

Overarching all of the goals and objectives outlined in the report, the task force found a significant need to engage multiple communities, including lawmakers, local staff, citizens, judges and other local partners; work which will be forthcoming by the Task Force.


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