Dwindling Mental Health Services Create Havoc for Law Enforcement

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July 21, 2014; USA Today

In the late ’90s, I was a young caseworker, and I had found myself working with an outreach team that would walk the streets of New York City to help the homeless people living there. The biggest shock to me during this time were the heavy majority of cases I was working with who suffered from severe mental illness and who had, sometimes within days, been a part of the criminal justice system. My admonition was to try to connect with a mental health service provider who could assist, finding those resources from a sheet of names and telephone numbers.

Since that time, the issue of mental health has not decreased among our most vulnerable citizens, and the resource sheet that I once was supplied with has probably been whittled down to a very select group of providers who were able to survive the deep cuts to mental services over the last decade.

A story conducted by USA Today, the first in a three-part series, discussed the challenges between the mental health crisis and the criminal justice system. According to data obtained by the author, Kevin Johnson, there are nearly 10 million Americans with serious mental illness, and within the criminal justice system, nearly “1.2 million people in state, local and federal custody reported some kind of mental health problem.”

One of several case studies that detail issues in a number of communities around the country, urban and rural, outlines the challenges seen in the Chicagoland region. In Chicago’s Cook County Jail, Sheriff Tom Dart keeps a running tally of the incoming cases involving those with mental illness on his Twitter account. According to Dart, “at least 30 percent of the 12,000 inmates suffer from a ‘serious’ mental illness,” with Dart stating that this estimate is “a horrifically conservative number.” Dart gives an example of a “‘chronic self-mutilator’ who has been arrested more than 100 times, ringing up more than $1 million in repeated arrest- and detention-related costs.”

Both on the streets and in communities, the rise in mental health challenges has caused local law enforcement to reallocate time and resources to this growing challenge. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, more than 20 percent of daily calls to local 911 are for services involving people who are emotionally disturbed.

Senator Dick Durbin outlined the challenges that have been growing ever since the passing of the 1963 Community Mental Health Centers Act. The imagined network of centers never emerged and actual facilities that concentrated on mental health closed, leaving the criminal justice system as the primary place for assistance. According to Durbin in a recent Senate hearing, “Law enforcement did not ask for this additional challenge, it was forced upon them by factors out of their control.”

As the country moves forward through these ongoing challenges, communities throughout the country will continue to struggle. Communities like Tulsa, Oklahoma, for instance. According to Jackson’s article, since January 2011 Tulsa police have logged 186,636 miles and racked up tens of thousands of dollars in overtime in search of available beds for mentally ill people in need of emergency treatment. Additionally, 2012 analysis by the Council of State Governments Justice Center stated that mental health transports by Oklahoma police increased by 45%.—John Brothers