By CSG Justice Center Staff
The Dauphin County Board of Commissioners endorsed a comprehensive plan today that provides concrete steps for the county to take to help reduce the number of people who have serious mental illnesses (SMI) in the local criminal justice system while making more efficient use of resources and increasing public safety.
The plan, developed in concert with an extensive report also released today, examines the number of people in the Dauphin County Prison who have SMI. The analysis of the county’s criminal justice and behavioral health system data—which took place over a 12-month period—revealed that a disproportionately high number of people released from Dauphin County Prison have SMI compared to the general population. In total, 16 percent of people released from DCP in 2016 were identified as having SMI, compared with four percent of the general population nationally.
“Today’s findings provide hard numbers to back up what people on the frontlines have been telling us: There are too many people with mental illness in prison,” said Dauphin County Commissioner George Hartwick, III, who oversees Human Services, including mental health, for the county. “One of the most significant injustices our country faces is the continued jailing of the mentally ill, who end up trapped in an endless cycle of recidivistic behavior.”
The study—which was requested by the county and conducted by the CSG Justice Center with regular consultation with the Dauphin County Criminal Justice Advisory Board and its stakeholders—also showed that people who have SMI stayed in DCP 30 percent longer than people who do not have SMI, and those people who have SMI returned more frequently to the local criminal justice system over the study period. Additionally, the average number of lifetime bookings into DCP is 66 percent higher for people who have SMI than people who do not have SMI.
“One of the frustrating issues for trial judges is the lack of options for handling cases involving folks with SMI who find themselves entangled in the criminal court system,” said Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas Judge Richard A. Lewis. “From bail to sentencing, and often supervision, finding the right approach to complement treatment services is a constant challenge. This is true not only for judges, but for attorneys, police, probation, and even treatment professionals. Stepping Up is a giant leap towards a better understanding of the depth of this issue locally and is going to provide helpful insight for effective approaches to deal with offenders with a mental illness in the court system.”
Many of the findings outlined in the report are consistent with challenges that counties across the country are facing; the number of people who have SMI in jails is often three to six times higher than that of the general public.
“Prison is not the place for people with mental illness,” said Dauphin County Board of Commissioners’ Chairman Jeff Haste. “The goal is to reduce the number of people with mental illness in prison without compromising public safety. Having the judges, district attorney, law enforcement and human services leaders at the table shows our level of commitment to the cause.”
Dauphin County Commissioner Mike Pries agreed.
“It’s an issue that also impacts our budget in a big way,” said Pries, who oversees operations at the prison. “The average cost of incarceration in a county jail is about $40,000 annually, compared to many community-based services that may cost less than half that amount.”
The report’s recommendations to county leaders include: provide support for law enforcement to improve responses to people who have mental health needs; conduct pretrial risk assessments to everyone processed through the Dauphin County Judicial Center; ensure that the results of mental health screenings inform decisions about the delivery of mental health services; increase the county’s ability to connect people who have SMI to community-based treatment; and develop a plan to increase the successful completion of supervision for people who have SMI.
“We are committed to the early identification of people charged with crimes who have serious mental illness so they can get the help they need,” said Fran Chardo. “Unfortunately, in the past, we lacked the tools to quickly identify such persons and they were more likely to just sit in jail. Fortunately, we have a commitment from all the stakeholders in the system to address this problem.”
“The Stepping Up Initiative represents the best ideals of collaborative government,” said Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas Judge and former District Attorney Ed Marsico. “Dauphin County is committed to finding solutions to the ongoing issue of keeping individuals with serious mental illness out of prison and out of the criminal justice system. This effort will increase public safety while simultaneously providing necessary assistance to offenders with serious mental illness. Thanks to Secretary Wetzel, the county commissioners, and our partners at CSG-The Justice Center for their dedication to this crucial endeavor.”
Probation Services also plays a critical role in this effort.
“Now that we have a clearer picture of what’s happening to people with mental illnesses in the Dauphin County criminal justice system we can better inform decision making in areas like improving supervision assignments from our probation officers and minimizing revocations, while increasing public safety,” said Chad Libby, director of Dauphin County Adult Probation and Parole. “Not only does this action plan create a more effective system it also helps ensure that we are being good stewards of taxpayer funds.”
Today’s event is only the latest action that Dauphin County has taken to address this issue. In June 2016, Dauphin County joined Stepping Up, a national movement to mobilize local and state leaders to commit to reducing the number of people who have mental illnesses in jails. Across the country more than 425 counties—24,of which are Pennsylvania counties—have also launchedStepping Up initiatives.
“This review started with a clear directive to find out the full scope of the challenge that our county faced and to develop an action plan that would create a long-term system-wide impact that will improve outcomes for people with mental illnesses in our local prison,” said Randie Yeager, director of Dauphin County Human Services.
The Pennsylvania Departments of Corrections, Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, the Bureau of Justice Assistance, and van Ameringen Foundation, Inc. funded the study.
“Talk to any corrections official about the top challenges that they face and the high number of people with serious mental illnesses cycling through the criminal justice system will be at the top of their list,” said John Wetzel, secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections and chair of the CSG Justice Center’s Executive Committee. “Dauphin County should be applauded for being at the forefront of counties using a data-driven review of their system to improve the lives of people in their community. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania hopes to take their lessons learned and implement changes across the other 66 counties in Pennsylvania.”