American Jails Have Become De Facto Psychiatric Facilities, Concl. - Sparrow Law Firm

In North Carolina, it is a crime to strike an emergency room nurse or doctor. Depending on the harm inflicted, an offender can be charged with misdemeanor or felony assault. While it makes sense to arrest someone who intentionally attacks a nurse for criminal purposes, the law is less clear-cut when we think about the person with mental illness who lashes out from fear or misunderstanding.

Arresting that person will likely land him or her in jail, where there are limited resources to address the underlying problem. The hospital may be exactly the place this guy should be, but, by acting out, he’s landed himself in a place where he could wait for months for treatment.

This is our last post in a series about the mentally ill in America’s prisons and jails. Most counties and states are ill-equipped to handle the burgeoning population of people with untreated schizophrenia and other serious psychological disorders.

In Miami-Dade County, the court is working on a novel approach to the problem. The objective is to keep people with mental illness who have committed misdemeanors and other minor crimes out of jail.

The “forensic diversion facility” will take the place of the jail. People with mental illness will be sentenced to time there or to time in jail — the court has the choice.

The facility will be run on a step-down model. When someone enters, he will be taken to a high-security section of the center, where he’ll stay until his condition has been stabilized. After that, the prisoner will go to a less jail-like part of the facility for treatment. As his condition improves, he steps down; eventually, he is ready to be released.

Officials understand that the program may not be for everyone, and it may not keep everyone with mental illness out of jail. Keeping 50 percent out of jail, though, would make “a huge dent in the problem,” one judge said.

Source: National Public Radio, “Nation’s Jails Struggle With Mentally Ill Prisoners,” Sept. 05, 2011