Pa. county officials hope to guide mentally ill to treatment instead of prison

    (Cunaplus/Bigstock)

    (Cunaplus/Bigstock)

    Warehousing mentally ill inmates in county jails is costly and harmful, but it happens a lot.

    In Berks County, Pennsylvania, perhaps 17 percent of jail beds are filled by people with a serious mental illness such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.

    “We are not designed as a jail to be a mental health facility,” Commissioner Kevin Barnhardt said.

    Pennsylvania counties spend $40,000 a year — on average — to incarcerate inmates.

    The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania said reconnecting inmates with housing assistance and the Medicaid program are two ways to help people afford counseling and medicines — and perhaps avoid a return trip to jail.

    When people who are severely mentally ill don’t have the mood-stabilizing medicines they need, some will commit drug-seeking crimes that land them in jail over and over again.

    Association members gathered Friday to share ways to divert those with mental health problems away from incarceration and toward less expensive alternatives where treatment is available.

    “Many are nonviolent and they become a victim in the criminal justice system, and they can’t seem to extricate themselves,” Barnhardt said.

    The state of Pennsylvania has a plan to suspend — instead of terminate — Medicaid eligibility for people when they enter jail.

    Association deputy director Brenda Penyak said county workers are in a good position to ease that process further by offering computer help and assistance with online forms.

    “As you can imagine with things being done online now, not every population is going to have the access to internet services, they are not going to have the ability to kind of understand what they need to do to get through the red tape of applying for government programs,” Penyak said.

    And that’s costly.

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