The Spokesman-Review


Our View: Mentally ill need treatment, not prison cells

We don’t have an epidemic of crime, but we do have a wave of troubling criminal justice news that speaks directly to budgetary crises in the Inland Northwest and nationwide. It also shines a spotlight on misplaced priorities in government spending.

At the start of 2008, one out of every 99.1 adults was behind bars in the United States, which is a record rate of incarceration for this nation and tops in the world. The Pew Center on the States notes that this translated into $49 billion in prison costs last year. Twenty years ago, that total was $11 billion. The rate of increase is six times higher than that for higher education.

That trend is reflected in Washington state, where in 1980, the average annual cost per household for the criminal justice system was $590 (in 2006 dollars). In 2005, it was $1,130 per year, even though felony crime rates were 26 percent lower, according to an analysis by the Legislature’s Washington State Institute for Public Policy.

This spending spree is courtesy of politically popular laws that increased convictions and lengthened sentences. The result is that while the crime rate was dropping, the incarceration rate was rising. From 1980 to 2005, it rose 165 percent at state prisons and 185 percent at county jails.

So today in Spokane County, we are looking at building a new jail to alleviate crowding at the current one. We might not even need that one if the mentally ill hadn’t been swept up in this and other societal trends. But they were, and now an estimated two-thirds of the people booked into the jail have some sort of mental illness.

In 1963, President Kennedy signed a forward-looking bill to provide mental health services throughout the country. But follow-up funding never materialized. Meanwhile, states closed psychiatric hospitals without making sure local governments had the money and services to treat their mentally ill populations. And civil rights advocates battled in courts to give the mentally ill more autonomy, which included the right to say no to needed care. So the problem moved to the streets.

As a result, the two largest mental health centers in the United States are the Rikers Island prison in New York and the Los Angeles County jail. Far more mentally ill people are in jails or prisons than in health care facilities. It isn’t fair to have dumped this problem on police officers, jailers and prison guards. It certainly isn’t doing the mentally ill any good, because along with missing out on needed treatment they are saddled with criminal records.

If we had known ahead of time that patients who resided in psychiatric hospitals would end up prisons in such alarmingly high numbers, the nation would have responded differently. We would have spent more on health care and less on criminal justice. We can do that today.

State projections show Washington state will need two more prisons within 20 years. Idaho has had to ship inmates to other states. New jails are inevitable, but they must come with better plans to handle the mentally ill. Fortunately, budgetary realities have forced governments to look at alternative punishments and comprehensive social services designed to keep people out of jails and prisons.

It will take strong leadership to kick the incarceration habit. But we need to unlock that mentality to free up smarter choices.

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