By Ashleigh Fryer, CSG Justice Center Staff
Teams of behavioral health and criminal justice professionals gathered in Washington, DC, this week to address the “human consequences of an inhumane system” in which 2 million adults with serious mental illnesses are admitted to county jails every year.
The National Stepping Up Summit convened jail administrators, law enforcement officials, elected officials, psychiatrists, and other stakeholders from 50 jurisdictions across 37 states, seeking to guide attendees in developing a system-level plan to reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in their jails. Throughout the two-day summit, county teams attended working sessions framed by six questions related to the commitment of their local leadership, their use of screening and assessments, the existing level of baseline data in their county, the degree to which they track progress, and other considerations.
“I believe we can take successful models at local and state levels and we can scale those up to a national level that can benefit the entire country,” said U.S. Sen. John Cornyn at the summit. “It’s all about safety—safety for the individuals who suffer from mental illness and safety for the communities they live in.”
The Stepping Up Initiative was launched in May 2015 as a partnership of The Council of State Governments Justice Center, The National Association of Counties, and The American Psychiatric Association Foundation. The initiative is designed to rally national, state, and local leaders around the goal of reducing the number of people with mental illnesses and substance use disorders in jails. Over the past year, more than 250 counties have passed resolutions to advance the goals of Stepping Up.
“This hasn’t been an easy sell within my own ranks,” said Jackie Lacey, district attorney for Los Angeles County, which has joined the Stepping Up Initiative. “But I knew what we were doing was wrong—that we were incarcerating people who were mentally ill for longer periods of time, that we were doing it out of fear and ignorance, and that it just wasn’t what many of us who have dedicated our lives [to justice] had signed up for: to take advantage of people who are sick.”
Despite the commitments and efforts of many communities, though, county leaders report that there are more people with mental illnesses in jails than ever before—the majority of whom are not a public safety risk. The percentage of people with mental illnesses in jails is three to six times higher than that of the general public.
Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to President Obama, applauded the momentum generated by the efforts of the county teams, and emphasized the Obama administration’s focus on the issue of criminal justice and mental health reform.
“You know firsthand the cost to counties of our current system is unsustainable, not to mention the impact on the individuals, their families, and our society,” Jarrett said. “We’re not safer when Americans with mental illness are treated as dangerous criminals when it is treatment and support they actually need. We must treat problems such as mental illness and addiction as a public health issue, not a criminal justice issue.”