Friday, April 27, 2007

Bexar Jail Administrator: 'Mental health consumers' don't belong in jail

Reacting to this Grits item about retarded or mentally ill defendants in jail who've been declared incompetent to stand trial, Bexar County Jail Administrator Dennis McKnight adds some thoughts via email about what else needs to be done:
Two other problems need to be addressed. First, finding a way to deal with mental health consumers other than my putting them in jail. A mental health consumer standing in front of a convenience store experiencing an attack of Tourette's syndrome may be bad for business, but is it criminal conduct? Asking that person to produce a valid ID will generally be beyond their ability. Reaching out to touch them is likely to produce a response that could be caracterized as resistance. Suddenly the officers has a solution to the problem. Criminal trespass, failure to ID and resisting detention or transportation. The consumer gets a ride to jail because of manifestation of his illness. We don't arrest people for having a heart attack, diabetic seizures, kidney failure, etc. But we do arrest folks with mental illnesses.

The mental health consumer spends, on average, twice as long in jail as a non-consumer for the same offense. The system is slow, over burdened, understaffed and bureaucratic. Mental health consumers tend to be at risk persons and afflicted with one or more cronic medical problems that increase the daily cost of incarceration. The daily cost to the tax payer to house a mental health consumer can easily be double or triple that of a non-consumer.

The second problem is what does or doesn't happen when the case is disposed of and the consumer is returned to the streets. Some of the more severe penalties for alleged criminal conduct are extra-judicial. Social Security benefits, welfare benefits, and Carelink are terminated for persons incarcerated for 30 or more days. If they had an apartment it is likely that they have been evicted and their belongings lost, stolen or thrown away. Then, we throw the consumer out the back door of the jail at midnight with no home, no job, no transportation, no money, and just the clothes in which they were arrested and a one day supply of medication. With few social skills and no resourses the likelihood exists that within a short time the consumer will meet another police officer who will find justification to arrest them. It is a system that expects performance but is designed to produce failure. We create our own biggest pool of recidivists.

Re-entry or aftercare programs can and do work. Educating and organizing the the community to understand that it is the right thing to do, the economical thing to do AND that it reduces victims. There has to be a support system in place for the consumer upon release from jail. If not,the consumer will either victimize someone in order to survive or because they are at risk, they will become a victim.

Residential facilities, similar to assisted living for elderly or physically impaired, may be a partical solution. Cognative adaptive training is also needed. For most, it is not an issue of rehabilitation, it is an issue of habilitation. The skills and knowledge are not present to rehab. New skills and knowledge must be imparted to the consumer if there is to be any hope of successful integration back into society. I hate to say it, but it really does take a village.
Thanks for the great input! See more from Deputy McKnight on the subject of county jail overcrowding.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mentally ill as mental health consumers is a good description. Explaining how Police are really dealing with people with mental illness helps to understand the problem. Care for the mentally ill is expensive; no doubt about it. Using jails for this care is probably the most expensive solution available to law makers responsible for funding social services. My sincere thanks to the Bexar Jail Administrator for bringing the realities of this situation into the light of day. Once we can admit there is a problem, we can begin to solve it!