Pa. Corrections launching study on mentally ill inmates in county jails

     The Council of State Governments Justice Center says numbers of mentally ill people incarcerated in county prisons has risen, even as prison populations have fallen overall. (AP Photo, file)

    The Council of State Governments Justice Center says numbers of mentally ill people incarcerated in county prisons has risen, even as prison populations have fallen overall. (AP Photo, file)

    Pennsylvania is embarking on a long-term plan to reduce the numbers of mentally ill inmates in county prisons.

    The the state Department of Corrections will team up with the Council of State Governments Justice Center, a national organization it has previously worked with to reduce state prison costs.

    Richard Cho, director of behavioral health for the Justice Center, said despite falling incarceration rates and attempts to route people with mental illnesses out of prisons and toward more appropriate treatment over the last decade, the numbers have actually edged up — in Pennsylvania and around the country.

    “Jails have become, basically, the de facto mental health system,” Cho said. “There’s more people who get mental health treatment in jails than in most community-based mental health facilities.”

    Cho is working to help Pennsylvania — and other states — get those figures down through a program called Stepping Up.

    It focuses on the county level,  he said,  because that’s where the bulk of mentally ill people end up, and little consistency exists in how they’re handled.

    “Most counties can’t tell you exactly how many people have a mental illness in the jails,” he said. “They may not even use a definition of mental illness that conforms to the way states and counties define mental illness.”

    Thirteen Pennsylvania counties already have joined Stepping Up, and Cho said an effort is underway to get more on board.

    Then, the group will collect data to help form a plan to standardize how mentally ill inmates are treated and potentially reroute them to more appropriate care.

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