End the policy of jailing the mentally ill

Task force rightly recommends new policy to end jailing the mentally ill

Keywords: Durango Herald,

A 30-member task force created by Gov. John Hickenlooper has recommended Colorado stop jailing people experiencing a mental health issue who have not committed a crime. It is clearly a recommendation that should be followed.

But it is also a recommendation that will require much more investigation, planning and legislation to implement. More to the point, it will also require money. What is not needed is an unfunded mandate from the state palming the problem off onto counties.

Jailing someone for a mental health problem is inhumane, unproductive and costly. No other health-related situation leads to imprisonment. And only five other states still allow the practice.

That does not mean a long-term solution will be easy to achieve. As reported in The Denver Post, especially in rural or remote areas easy alternatives are not readily available. And, of course, cost is part of the issue.

State law now allows for detaining mentally ill people in jail for 24 hours. After that they must be taken to a health facility for evaluation and possible treatment. In many parts of the state, however, such a facility could be hours away.

That leaves local authorities with no good options. Individuals experiencing a mental health crisis may well be dangers to themselves or others and releasing them may not be an acceptable alternative.

Suitable mental health facilities may not be available either. And transporting patients to an institution that can properly accommodate them can be costly in more ways than one.

For Western Slope communities, the nearest available mental health bed may well be in Grand Junction or the Front Range. So not only is there the actual cost of transporting patients, but the trip could easily mean an already short-staffed law enforcement agency is deprived of another officer for hours.

Faced with potentially dangerous or suicidal individuals, authorities in rural or remote areas have typically jailed them while trying to arrange transportation or hoping their episode will pass. But just because such a choice is understandable does not make it optimal or even acceptable.

A task force member Moe Keller, vice president of public policy for Mental Health Colorado, told the Post, “Individuals who haven’t committed a crime should never be locked in a jail. It can exacerbate the problem.”

The task force wants to end jailing the mentally ill by January of 2018. One member would do so right now to force counties to find alternatives.

But the problem is not of the counties’ making. Moreover, counties where the situation is most problematic — in rural and remote areas — are the most strapped for resources.

The task force discussed other responses to expand the availability of mental health care, particularly for those who might otherwise run afoul of law enforcement. These include various ways to adopt regional measures and expanding each area’s crisis response system. Gov. Hickenlooper has also included $4 million in his proposed budget to help fund the task force’s recommendation.

Those are the kind of efforts that warrant further discussion. Accompanying that should be greatly expanded efforts to get more and more accurate data as to the extent and nature of the problem — starting with tracking how many people with mental illness actually are jailed.

Saying the mentally ill do not belong in jail is only half of the answer.