Pa. counties take initiative to keep the mentally ill out of prison

About 20 percent of inmates nationally have a serious mental illness.

Pat Loeb
October 15, 2018 - 5:26 pm
An inmate sits in the B wing for the mentally ill at the Sanislaus County Public Safety Center in Modesto, California, on Nov. 18, 2010.

Debbie Noda/Modesto Bee/MCT/Sipa USA

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Pennsylvania officials announced the launch of a technical assistance center Monday to help counties reduce the number people with mental illness who are incarcerated. 

About 20 percent of inmates nationally have a serious mental illness. Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel estimated the figure rises to 29 percent in the state, and about 16 percent just in Philadelphia.

"The reality of America — and Pennsylvania, in particular — is that jails and prisons are delivering more mental health services than anybody else, and that's a sad state of affairs," he added.

To combat the dilemma, the state joined with the Council of State Governments Justice Center for the Stepping Up Initiative last year to gather data and research solutions. Now, the technical assistance center will provide the expertise to start deploying those solutions and take action. 

Wetzel believes it will provide individualized solutions rather than a one-size-fits-all program handed down by the state.

"Philadelphia County is not the same as like a Lebanon County. Very different challenges, very different resources in the community, very different profile of individuals coming through the systems," he noted.

Derek Riker from the City of Philadelphia Managing Director's Office gave an example of one the city would like to try: "To provide attorneys, in court, with more supports to understand when they have a client who might be facing mental health issues; to recognize them and to give attorneys who typically don't have any understanding or knowledge of behavioral health guidance and services."

More than 425 counties have passed a resolution or proclamation to participate in the initiative, 29 of which are in Pennsylvania.

The Stepping Up Initiative provides resources and compiles local organizations to offer assistance as a way to encourage counties to assess their existing efforts to reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in jail, according to the initiative.

The goal is to get people treatment and keep them out of jail.