According to most people you talk to, people who land in jail generally belong there. But many in today’s law enforcement mind-set see damaged lives due to mental illness become wasted lives when they end up in jail. It costs “offenders” their lives while the taxpayers pick-up a very expensive tab.
What’s worse, many mentally ill people strung out on drugs, minor crimes or a myriad of other charges, are put into Lincoln County’s jam-packed jail. Because the jail is chronically full, these low level offenders end up pushing out hardened criminals well before their sentences are up.
Enter “Stepping Up” – a new program with a new perspective on all this wasted time, money – if not humanity.
Lincoln County Sheriff Curtis Landers told the Newport City Council this week that he and a number of others including County Commissioner Bill Hall and consultant Steve Sparks, are teaming up with other county and state officials, who also know, that throwing the mentally ill in jail is usually a total waste of time and jail space. They’re mentally ill – they need help – not bars. They need treatment – not court time.
Stepping Up means law enforcement, mental health specialists and the taxpayers step up to admit that the criminal justice system doesn’t work when it comes to locking up mentally ill people who suffer from alcoholism, drug addiction, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder – the list goes on and on.
Sheriff Curtis says Lincoln County’s Stepping Up program is in its early phases. They’ve already organized the beginnings of changing the way law enforcement handles obviously mentally disturbed people. They’re working on recruiting mental health workers who can respond to incidents where mental illness might be the core issue – not the minor crime a suspect may have committed. Instead of going to jail, they’ll go to something like an intake facility for the mentally ill where they can be diagnosed by a psychologist or other mental health professional and get them into a treatment program instead of jail.
Again, the program is in its infancy. Sheriff Landers says he’s firmly committed to it because he knows it works in other communities – and that it can work in Lincoln County. Sheriff Landers said the only other option is to build a much larger jail costing many millions of dollars and the mentally ill would be no better off than before – except the public gets hit with a big costly jail the county didn’t need and paying higher taxes for a facility nobody wanted.
This story will be unfolding step by step through the next year as Sheriff Landers and others acquire grants from public and private sources to get Stepping Up up and running by helping those suffering troubled lives finally get help, instead of jail. And the public can once again know that those who belong in jail are in jail – and won’t be getting early releases due to jail crowding.