Jailing People with Mental Illness Is a National Problem. The Solutions Are Local.

The Virginian-Pilot

By Gary A. Harki

There are countless problems in this world that lack ready solutions.

Jailing so many people with mental illness is not one of them.

Throughout the country, in places as diverse as Tucson, Miami and Milwaukee, people are finding ways to get those with diseases such as schizophrenia, PTSD and bipolar disorder the help they need rather than locking them up. Common among all approaches is a willingness to address the problem across systems – from the courtroom to the jail to treatment and housing.

“What it usually comes down to is just the cultural commitment of the people running the institution,” said Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm. “Is it going to be high-functioning or is it going to be a jail that just does the bare minimum that has to be done?”

The pace of people dying in jails with mental illness is relentless.

In Houston, Debora Lyons, who suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, threatened suicide while being held on a $1,500 bail for a theft charge. On Aug. 14, she killed herself.

Police tried to find a mental health facility for John Davenport but couldn’t. They took him to the Sebastian County Detention Center, where he died in September after an apparent head injury.

While it’s a national problem, addressing mental illness in America’s jails requires local people finding on-the-ground solutions.

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