Opinion: Data is Key to Reducing the Number of People with Mental Illnesses in Jails

The Hill

By Roy Charles Brooks, Tracy Plouck, and Dr. Altha Stewart

The disproportionate number of people who have mental illnesses in jails has reached national crisis levels.

Estimates show that 2 million U.S. jail admissions each year involve people who have serious mental illnesses, many of whom also have substance use disorders. Several individual county studies have also found that people who have mental illnesses are three to six times more likely to be booked in jail compared to the general public. The issue disconnects people from critical mental health treatment, does little to improve public safety, and strains already-tight budgets of communities large and small.

In recent years, a broad coalition of law enforcement officials, judges, policymakers, and behavioral health professionals have stepped up, committing themselves and their counties to preventing jails from becoming de facto psychiatric facilities. Now, with that leadership in place across hundreds of counties nationwide, it is time to address the next challenge: Many counties need help accurately identifying the number of people who have mental illnesses in their jails.

Without knowing that number, counties simply cannot solve this issue—how do you reduce a population when you don’t know its size?

In response, Stepping Up—a national initiative designed to help reduce the number of people who have mental illnesses in jails—this month announced that it is expanding its efforts to ensure every county in the nation has the capacity to collect accurate, accessible data on 1) the number of people booked into their jails who have mental illnesses; 2) their length of stay in these facilities; 3) whether they are being connected to needed treatment after they’re released; and 4) how often they return to jail. Consistently collecting and analyzing this data will not only help counties create a system-wide impact, but also ensure more efficient use of taxpayer dollars.

Stepping Up’s partners—The Council of State Governments Justice Center, the National Association of Counties, and the American Psychiatric Association Foundation—will provide technical assistance on this issue to counties across the country. Those counties include the more than 425 across 43 states—representing 40 percent of the U.S. population—that have already joined the initiative.

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