By the CSG Justice Center staff
Leaders in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, launched a data-driven project on Thursday as part of the national Stepping Up initiative, seeking to reduce the number of people with mental illnesses and co-occurring substance use disorders in the county prison.
“Dauphin County has already taken important, successful steps toward addressing the issue of mental illness in our prison,” County Commissioner George Hartwick III said. “At the same time, there are too many people cycling repeatedly in and out of prison. Through this project, we’re looking to assemble data that helps me and other county leaders track what progress we’re making in slowing this revolving door and connecting people with addictions and mental illnesses to the support they need. We want to make sure we are getting the best possible return on every dollar we invest.”
Dauphin County–home to Harrisburg–will receive intensive technical assistance from The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center, a national nonprofit that will guide the county in answering four key questions: How many people with mental illnesses are in the county prison? What is their average length of stay? Are they being connected with behavioral health treatment upon release? What is their rate of recidivism?
County commissioners and the CSG Justice Center will use their findings to develop a plan to address the issue through policy and programming recommendations in 2017.
“Talk to a corrections officers in our prison and they will tell you that more people with mental health needs are entering our jails,” said Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico. “This data will give us a precise snapshot of the number of people with mental health needs in our system and what the needs are for that population. The plan we will develop will help us craft a roadmap that makes sure we are providing appropriate diversion services when necessary and building upon public safety.”
Thursday’s launch is one of several recent actions Dauphin County has taken to address this issue, including establishing Drug and Veterans Problem Solving Courts, ensuring that all local police departments use the same records management system to help with data collection, and improving reentry planning to make sure that people leaving the criminal justice system are connected with services that they need.
Stepping Up, a partnership between the CSG Justice Center, The National Association of Counties, and The American Psychiatric Association Foundation, is designed to rally leaders around the goal of achieving a reduction in the number of people with mental illnesses and substance use disorders in jail. Dauphin is 1 of more than 300 counties—including 11 in Pennsylvania—that has joined the initiative since its launch in May 2015.
Each year, an estimated two million people with serious mental illnesses are admitted to jails across the nation—a rate that’s three to six times higher than that of the general public. Nearly three-quarters of these adults also have drug and alcohol use problems. Once incarcerated, people with mental illnesses tend to stay in jail longer and, upon release, they are at a higher risk of returning to incarceration than those without these illnesses.
“As someone who previously ran a county jail, I applaud Dauphin County for being at the forefront of efforts to address a problem that plagues counties throughout the country,” said John Wetzel, secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections and vice chair of the CSG Justice Center Board of Directors. “The data and technical assistance that the county will receive will be invaluable in helping build a better criminal justice system that will effect positive changes for the citizens of Dauphin County and Pennsylvania.”
The project has committed funding support from key state and federal agencies, including the Pennsylvania Departments of Corrections, the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance.
“Even one day in jail can harm an individual living with a behavioral health issue,” said Ted Dallas, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services. “Dauphin County’s continued commitment to addressing this issue has once again been demonstrated today and we stand ready to support them and all Pennsylvania counties to achieve their goals.”