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Seriously Mentally Ill Inmates A Growing Problem For County Jails

Thomas Hawk/Flickr

Across the country, people with serious mental illness are ending up in county jails in large numbers. A national survey out today highlights the extent of the problem. This comes at a time when Washington state is in trouble over how it deals with mentally ill inmates.John Snook, with the Treatment Advocacy Center, says what his organization found in its survey was that sheriffs and jail staff everywhere are coping with people who are mentally ill.

“These are people who are being arrested for what amounts to symptoms of their illness, things like loitering, public urination, petty theft,” Snook said.

He says we should be asking why we are expecting law enforcement officers to treat an illness.

“If this was heart disease, if this was a stroke and we had jailers and police officers responding, we would be up in arms,” Snook said.

The survey also shows that money is cited as the primary obstacle.

In Seattle last week, a federal judge found the state of Washington in contempt of court for failing to comply with an order regarding mental health treatment. The Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) is now being fined from $500 to $1,000 a day for each jailed defendant forced to wait more than 2 weeks for a mental health competency hearing.

In a statement issued by DSHSon Monday, the department says it's trying. It says progress has been made in limiting the amount of time people with mental illness languish in jails here.  According to the statement:

"DSHS reduced the number of days to provide in-jail evaluations from 66.5 days to 13.8 days at Eastern State Hospital and from 20.7 to 9.6 days at Western State Hospital. "

"After reviewing the judge's most recent ruling, we are disappointed that the conclusions do not recognize the significant progress made since the April 2015 ruling," said Carla Reyes, assistant secretary for the DSHS Behavioral Health Administration.

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.