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Special Report: Breaking the Cycle

County jails around the country are locking up mentally ill people in record numbers – around two million people each year.

“There are more mentally ill individuals in jail, in prison than there are in hospitals or treatment centers. That’s frightening,” said Anna White.

Anna White is one of 33 community mental health liaisons in Missouri, assessing people referred to her by police officers.

“Prisons and jails are not equipped to deal with mentally ill people and it becomes a safety risk. A safety risk to the individual and a safety risk to the staff,” said White.

White is busy, she is the only mental health liaison for 10 counties in Mid-Missouri. White’s job is to keep mentally ill people out of jail by connecting them with services and treatment.

The U.S. adopted a more community-based approach to treatment after closing many psychiatric hospitals over 50 years ago.

“We’ve gone from very large institutional setting, psychiatric hospitals to prisons – same settings, institutional settings, but we’ve not really completed the promise of having enough community resources available for individuals to live successfully in the community,” said Brent Mcginty with Missouri Coalition for Community Behavioral Healthcare.

The National Association of Counties said mental illness in U.S. jails has reached crisis levels. In Boone County, mental illness in the jail population trends above average.

“The national average is 19 percent. Boone County typically runs about a third of our population presenting with mental illness,” said Boone County Commissioner Janet Thompson.

Thompson has been working for a year to lower the percentage of mentally ill inmates in Boone County jail.

“We do have mental health staff here at the Boone County jail, but incarceration in a conventional correctional facility is probably not the best way to go with some of these people that are seriously mentally ill,” said Det. Tom O’Sullivan with Boone County Sheriff’s Department.

Officials said it also drains resources. Mentally ill inmates tend to stay longer, demand more officer attention and contribute to jail overcrowding.

“We’re at capacity, we are constantly being challenged in that regard. We are housing a number of inmates in different facilities in Mid-Missouri,” said O’Sullivan.

“We want to find a better solution for people in our community and we can utilize our resources better than building a bigger jail and throwing away the key. That’s not the answer,” said Thompson.

The National Association of Counties is pushing for an answer. It’s called the “Stepping up Initiative” and it encourages counties around the country to reduce the amount of incarcerated mentally ill people.

Boone County has taken up the challenge. For the first time in May the county brought together key players from the court and correctional system. The group evaluates cases for mental health issues.

“Is there something in each of these cases to get these people the kind of help they need more quickly to make sure we are not adding in delay by what we’re not doing,” said Thompson.

The method helped Johnson County, Iowa decrease its jail population by 100 inmates a day.

Employees at a company in Kansas City said they might also have part of the solution. Lauren Moyer with Rediscover said it’s an assessment and triage center, and the first-of-its-kind in Missouri.

The center is slated to open in July and will help people with mental illness who come into contact with authorities.

“Folks who really don’t need to go to jail. They don’t need a ticket. They don’t need to go through our legal system. They really just need a more warm hand-off and get connected with the right resources,” said Lauren Moyer with Rediscover.

For the first year, the new facility will only take referrals from police and hospitals. Moyer describes the facility as a bridge for people to get the right type of care.

“We really get to know the person, know their story, understand what it is they’re struggling with. What resources they might need and we do a very warm hand- off to an out-patient care. So, that they don’t have to end up at jail,” said Moyer.

The Boone County Commission is set to vote on funding for a project that would develop a plan to better identify and help people who might fall into the criminal justice system because of mental health issues.

ABC 17 News Team

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