No one needed to tell Hillsborough County Jail Superintendent James O’Mara or New Hampshire District Court Judge James Leary that more people with serious mental illnesses were locked up in the local jail than ever before. What they didn’t know–until they requested an analysis from the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) looking at who was admitted to the jail and how long they stayed–was what was driving that growth.
Hillsborough County (Manchester, NH)
Hillsborough County (Manchester), New Hampshire, officials took action after learning that the average length of stay in Hillsborough County for pretrial detainees who had a serious mental illness was three times longer than for other pretrial detainees.
They set up a task force that determined, with the help of a CSG Justice Center analysis, that defendants with serious mental illnesses were often unaware during arraignment of the existence or advantages of the county’s mental health court. Furthermore, judges were understandably reluctant to refer a defendant to mental health court until the individual could consult an attorney, because participation in a mental health court can extend the period of court supervision beyond a traditional sentence. The task force took steps to ensure people with serious mental illnesses are assigned defense counsel prior to arraignment.
Members also focused on the waiting period before a defendant received an evaluation of competency to stand trial, which could last as long as three months. The task force partnered with disability rights advocates and the Chief Justice’s Task Force on Mental Health and Criminal Justice to push for statutory change requiring a maximum of 60 days from initial request to evaluation (the cap had been 90 days). In its 2009 session, the state legislature amended the relevant statute.
The task force also recommended that the county jail adopt a tool, to be administered at intake, for assessing an individual’s risk of recidivating. The results of this risk assessment, coupled with recommendations from jail officials, would inform judges’ decisions about whether they issue bail and refer a person to one of the two programs.