Too many people with mental illness are behind bars in this country. How big a problem is it? Nationally, their number is estimated at two million. Here in Lincoln County, about 30 percent of our jail population at any time has been treated for a mental health diagnosis; about 10 percent of the total number are severely and persistently mentally ill.
Why is this a problem? Locking up mentally ill people doesn’t make our communities safer. It doesn’t help them manage their illness or recover from it. And it’s costly in part because people with mental illness tend to cycle through the system again and again and get “stuck” once they’re in it. In one Ohio County, the average length of stay in jail is 20 days. But for those arrested for armed robbery, it’s seven days; while those arrested for public urination are locked up for 73 days.
Here’s another example of how this problem wastes resources. If a person arrested for a crime (often a low-level misdemeanor) displays signs of mental illness, his or her attorney will file a motion that they’re unable to aid and assist in their own defense. They’re shipped to the state hospital in Salem to await an evaluation and undergo treatment to stabilize their condition. It costs $1,000 a day to keep someone in that facility, and the average length of stay is 66 days. I was at a meeting recently where the director of the Oregon Health Authority said we could provide people with a year of treatment and housing in the community at far less cost.
We can do better. We can help people recover. We can clear cells of people who don’t belong in jail so we have the capacity to hold those who truly need to be there. And we can save money doing just that.
For all these reasons, the National Association of Counties, Council of State Governments and the American Psychiatric Association came together in the Spring of 2015 to launch “Stepping Up,” a national effort to focus on reducing these staggering numbers.
Recently, Lincoln County joined more than 300 other counties in 41 states in signing on as a Stepping Up County. We’ll focus on improving the way the public safety and health care systems work together, and we’ll look for ways to fill the gaps in resources to provide treatment, housing and supportive services to people with mental illness.
This is a tall order. Two recent surveys have shown Oregon to rank near the bottom of all states in access to mental health services. But Lincoln County already has some pieces in place, including an inmate counselor in the jail and a Mental Health Court. In 2017, we’ll launch a mental health Mobile Crisis unit, bringing workers into the field for the first time.
Locally, we’re focusing on some short term goals, like getting Mental Health First Aid Training for all Sheriff’s Deputies and Parole and Probation Officers. This will give them tools to better assess and deal with people they encounter with mental illness. We’re also gearing up to do a detailed mapping exercise next year, known as Sequential Intercept Mapping, that will identify every point at which someone can encounter the justice system, and how we can divert them to treatment and services at the appropriate point. This mapping effort will lay out our path toward building a better system.
I hope everyone interested in our progress on this effort will visit this new page on the county website: http://www.co.lincoln.or.us/boc/page/stepping-initiative You’ll find links to other resources and ongoing reports from our local communities.
Bill Hall, Chair
Lincoln County Commission