Those Facing Incarceration Who Have a Mental Illness Need ‘Treatment Instead of Punishment,’ Advocates Say

Tulsa World

Lindsay McAteer was certain her life was over.

After a lifetime living with depression, anxiety and a substance use disorder, the Tulsa woman was facing 12 years to life in prison for nonviolent drug offenses. Then her lawyer, a judge and the Tulsa mental health community helped set her on a new path.

McAteer told her story at the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office on Wednesday as part of a national day of action by the Stepping Up Initiative, which partners with counties nationwide to reduce the number of incarcerated people with mental illnesses. Tulsa County began collaborating with the group in 2015.

About 1 in 3 people in the Tulsa County jail have a mental illness, according to Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Casey Roebuck. The county has mental health pods, which are specially designed for such people and have trained staff, but Roebuck said they often are at capacity.

“We realize the status quo is not working,” Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado said. “Budget cuts to mental health programs have forced Tulsa County jail to become one of our state’s largest mental health facilities.”

Regalado said the Sheriff’s Office shares the view of mental health advocacy groups that systemic changes are necessary to reduce the number of inmates with mental illnesses. He offered the example of creating specialty courts to ensure that those in need get the help they require.

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