State hospitals as alternative to prison?

    Pennsylvania lawmakers are considering a novel idea to deal with prison overcrowding.

    Pennsylvania lawmakers are considering a novel idea to deal with prison overcrowding.

    Members of the House Judiciary Committee are looking into the possibility of moving prisoners with mental illnesses into state mental hospitals. Chairman Thomas Caltagirone says that would ease overcrowding and get mentally ill prisoners better treatment.

    Caltagirone: Yes they have committed crimes, some minor crimes, some major crimes, but they are mentally ill, and to incarcerate them in a correctional facility doesn’t seem to do them justice.

    Mental health advocates say the state’s mental hospital’s are dilapidated – and for the cost of renovations, mentally ill offenders could receive treatment and supervision in their own communities. Joseph Rodgers is Chief Advocacy Officer with the Mental Health Association of SE Pennsylvania:

    Rodgers: I think if we took that money and created community based programming we could probably have the same effect of diverting people from prison who basically are there because of their mental illness, and there’s real evidence that you can successfully treat and work with people in the community that just don’t need to be in prison

    University of Pennsylvania psychologist Mark Salzer says the fact that admissions to mental hospitals nationally are up for the first time in 50 years suggests many states are already doing this. He says lawmakers likely saw overcrowded prisons, mentally ill prisoners, and vacant beds in state hospitals:

    Salzer: And they said hey – we’ve got these people filling up our jails and prisons, instead of adding more prisons, let’s move people with mental illnesses who are in jails and prisons to these state hospital grounds, and that seems accounting for the increase in the state hospital population

    As an alternative, the Judiciary Committee is also considering moving two thousand prisoners to prisons in Virginia and Michigan.

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