By John J. McCarthy
It is tragic that our jails have become our nation’s largest mental-health treatment facilities. It’s a public policy disaster resulting from a 90 percent reduction in U.S. psychiatric beds since deinstitutionalization began in the 1960s. Clearly, inadequate funding for community-based mental-health services has compounded the crisis.
That’s why the criminal-justice system is the default valve for many people who have mental illness, and why Montgomery County’s new mental-health courts are in high demand. Mental-health courts divert from prosecution to treatment defendants who are accused of low-level crimes such as vandalism, trespassing, disorderly conduct, theft or simple assault whose alleged offense is attributed to mental illness.
Our nation’s more than 300 mental-health courts advance justice. A 2009 study by the MacArthur Foundation and the Council of State Governments found they cut criminal recidivism of participants by 20 percent to 25 percent and provide better links to mental-health treatment that lead to productive lives. Mental-health courts also reduce emergency room visits. Reduced recidivism also improves criminal-justice system efficiency by avoiding repeated arrests of the same individuals for minor offenses.
Many people booked into jails need immediate mental-health care. In Montgomery County, that number skyrocketed from 1,011 in 2011 to 2,137 in 2015. Calls to Montgomery County Police related to a mental-health crisis increased from 4,440 in 2011 to 6,892 in 2016. Nineteen percent of men and 28 percent of women in our jail have a serious and persistent mental illness, and many have a substance-use disorder, too. Some have been arrested multiple times for the same minor offense because the underlying cause hasn’t been addressed. Each booking costs thousands of dollars.