Can You Tell from Our Jails That Mental Illness is Not a Crime? P5

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We are finishing up our discussion of efforts to address the issues that cause and result from the incarceration of people with serious mental illnesses. This is not a new problem by any means, but a new nationwide imitative — Stepping Up — has brought the issue back to the fore.

Stepping Up is built around communities — corrections, courts, lawmakers, mental health services — sharing information and ideas. The idea is to leverage the combined knowledge and insight of every county in the country into something that works.

North Carolina has tried a couple of approaches, including mental health courts. (We talked about them in our last post.) Some counties have instituted jail diversion programs that work to steer detainees with mental illness away from jail and into treatment programs before too much time passes.

The state also recognizes that some defendants’ mental state can make it impossible for them to participate in their defense or trial in a meaningful way. Still, the procedures can be cumbersome and, in truth, unproductive for the defendant.

For example, the “incapacity to proceed” law provides that the court, the prosecutor, the defense attorney or the defendant himself may raise the issue of capacity at any time leading up to trial or even during the trial. There must then be a hearing, with experts and impartial examinations and so forth, and the court may or may not order that the defendant be confined for treatment. If the investigation finds that the defendant meets the criteria for incapacity, the charges may be dismissed.

While all of this is going on, though, the defendant may be sitting in jail without access to treatment.

Is there an answer? The founders and participants of Stepping Up hope that someone out there has at least part of an answer that the rest of us can copy or build on. In the meantime, 2 million adults with serious mental illnesses will continue to be arrested, to sit in jails without access to treatment and, when finally released, to start the cycle again — all in the name of public safety.

Source: The Council of State Governments, “Launch of National Initiative Offers Counties Research-Based Support to Address Growing Mental Health Crisis in Jails,” May 6, 2015