Can You Tell from Our Jails That Mental Illness is Not a Crime? - Sparrow Law Firm

The last time we thought about the concept of drunk tanks, we were watching an episode of “The Andy Griffith Show.” Andy, as you may recall, was the sheriff of Mayberry, North Carolina, a small town with more mischief than crime. The jail had two cells, and one was often occupied by the character Otis, the so-called town drunk. Otis would either come in on his own or be picked up by Andy or his deputy, Barney Fife, lie down on the cot and “sleep it off.” As we recall, neither Andy nor Barney ever locked the cell, nor did they ever book or charge Otis.

It does not really work that way anymore — if it ever really did. Jails are so crowded nowadays that the county can’t spare the cell for someone who has not been arrested or charged. There is no drunk tank, even if we have plenty of town drunks. We are more likely to find someone with a mental illness in those cells.

According to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, only 5 percent of the general population suffers from a severe mental illness. Nationwide, however, as many as 15 percent of the people incarcerated in jails — not prisons, just jails — suffer from a severe mental illness. On average, the U.S. jails around 800,000 people with severe mental illness ever year. As a result, a disturbing unintended consequence is that the country’s largest jails are also our largest mental health institutions.

Except that jails are not supposed to be mental health institutions. They are supposed to be part of the criminal justice system, places that hold individuals awaiting trial or suspected of a crime, places where individuals convicted of lesser crimes serve out their short sentences.

We’ll continue this in our next post.

Source: North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, Jail Diversion Program FAQs, accessed online May 8, 2015