Ask any sheriff about the issues associated with jail management and you’ll learn about four major issues: safety of the facility, special needs housing, rising costs of psychotropic medicines, and staffing.  You’ll also learn the common denominator in all of those themes is mental illness.

Mental illness can have a significant impact on the safety and security of the facility. Mentally ill inmates and detainees can place staff and fellow inmates in harm’s way. Special needs inmates and detainees with mental illness often need special housing considerations, which adds costs to facility management and capital projects designs and remodels. The cost of psychotropic drugs and an increase in the number of inmates diagnosed with mental illness are having a major impact on jail management and budgetary restrictions. The current shortage of law enforcement positions, especially with respect to detention and jail assignments, has inadvertently caused a perfect storm in modern correctional management.

The good news is that in the 2016 Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) report, U.S. jails reported 10.6 million admissions, continuing a general decline since 2008. The bad news is that in another BJS study, a third of that inmate population reported a special needs or disability requirement and special accommodations were needed with that special population. Nationally, mental illness affects about 50 percent of prison population and nearly two-thirds of jail populations. National studies show that approximately 17 percent of inmates admitted into jails would be considered to have a serious mental illness and in Texas alone there are over 6,000 pre-trial detainees suffering from mental illness.

A promising program that addresses these issues is Seattle’s LEAD Program. It’s proven to help reduce jail population and can offer evidence-based treatment programs for inmates and detainees with mental illness and drug addictions. LEAD, or Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, is a pre-booking and pre-arrest program in Seattle that resulted in a reduction in recidivism and focuses on low-level offenders who suffering from mental illness or drug addiction. The purpose of this program is to divert those with addictions and forms of mental illness from the criminal justice system and into a social service system that can provide a possible intervention for someone in need without an arrest having to take place.

In a recent study (Collins, Lonczak, and Clifasefi) the LEAD program reduced recidivism among the participants by 22 percent when compared to the control group that went through the traditional criminal justice process. It is worthy to note that the traditional criminal justice process in this jurisdiction also included special courts (i.e., drug courts) tailored for some of the crimes involved in the LEAD evaluation (drugs, prostitution) and that LEAD, where diversion occurs prior to booking, was still more effective.

Another key component of the LEAD Program was the development of the Crises Intervention Team (CIT), which focuses on a safe conclusion to incidents related to mental health. This team is comprised of a specialty training law enforcement officer and a license professional clinician that is responsible for only responding to calls involving mental illness. This program also adopted PERF Guiding Principles into state requirements regarding training on use of force and crises intervention.

The implementation of LEAD or similar programs could have a major impact on the four major issues for current U.S. Sheriffs. LEAD could reduce violence in jail systems significantly and reduce the needs for special accommodations. In addition, the shift of costs associated to staffing needs and the rising costs of medicines related to mental illness can be transferred away from public safety budgets and rightly placed under medical providers within social justice programs.

Photo by Dean Rutz, The Seattle Times