Pennsylvania Stepping Up Initiative to Tackle Mental Illness in County Jails

May 1, 2017

Wetzel2Pennsylvania became the third state to launch a statewide Stepping Up Initiative to reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in county jails, joining Ohio and California on April 4.

The announcement was made at the state’s Criminal Justice Advisory Board Conference by John Wetzel (left), secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) and chair of the CSG Justice Center board; Judge John Zottola, committee chair of Pennsylvania’s Mental Health and Justice Advisory Committee (MHJAC); and Richard Cho, director of Behavioral Health at The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center.

“Every single meeting that I have with law enforcement, the number one issue that comes up is about people with mental illnesses in the criminal justice system,” Wetzel said. “That’s why I’m excited about the Stepping Up Initiative, which takes a data-driven approach to solving this problem and addressing the needs of the individual at the local level.”

Stepping Up Pennsylvania will be led and staffed by a subcommittee of MHJAC, including staff from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency (PCCD), the Department of Human Services Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania (CCAP), the Comprehensive Behavioral Health Task Force of CCAP, and others.

Thirteen Pennsylvania Counties have already separately signed Stepping Up resolutions. Among those is Dauphin County, which is the first county in the state to receive intensive technical assistance from the CSG Justice Center to help the county understand how many people in their jail have a mental illness, their average length of stay, their recidivism rates, and the behavioral health care they’re being connected to in the community.

“We’re calling on a paradigm shift,” Cho said. “This is not the kind of problem that we will solve through one piece of legislation or actions. It’s going to take a team of strategies and processes to address this complex issue.”

The focus of the new multi-year initiative includes increasing the number of Pennsylvania counties to join Stepping Up, bolstering the use of accurate data, and using that data to drive strategies to reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in jails and help counties enhance diversion options and reentry assistance.

The framework of the Pennsylvania initiative is based on a Stepping Up report, which identifies six key questions community stakeholders must answer in order to put them on a path toward establishing a comprehensive strategy to impact the problem. This roadmap for local leaders addresses key elements of a successful plan, including the need for screening and assessments for mental illness upon admission to jail; establishing a baseline of data for counties to follow; tracking progress on key outcomes, such as recidivism rates; and ensuring connections to treatment.

“Mental illness is an issue that takes a dramatic toll on families and communities all across the commonwealth of Pennsylvania—no one is immune,” Zottola said. “Stepping Up brings county leaders and other stakeholders together to forge a commitment to address this issue and ensure that people are getting the appropriate care that they need so they have the best chance to put their lives back together.”


Stepping Up launched in May 2015 as a partnership between The Council of State Governments Justice CenterThe National Association of Counties, and The American Psychiatric Association Foundation. The initiative has rallied more than 350 counties, representing 35 percent of the U.S. population, to commit to actions toward reducing the number of people with mental illnesses in jails.

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