Speakers: Criminal Justice System Needs Mental Health Training

Article excerpt

Properly recognizing and treating mental illness could save the criminal justice system over the long haul, according to several speakers at a meeting of a legislative task force studying jail diversion of the mentally ill.

The Oklahoma House Mental Health Committee was conducting the study under House Interim Study 99-47.

Dr. Robert Powitzky with the Department of Corrections told committee members that 40 years ago when it was decided to reduce the use of mental hospitals, many residents were released but later ended up in prison.

In fact, 30 percent of the mental health patients were incarcerated.

"Prisons were never designed or intended to take care of the mentally ill," he said.

Powitsky said that although the DOC could take care of the long- term mentally ill if it were given such a mandate, that's not what it was designed to do. The way the system is currently set up, some people leave the corrections system worse than they came in because they don't get appropriate mental health care, he said.

"We don't take out somebody's appendix in a nursing home," he said.

Jack Burden, National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, told committee members that without adequate treatment for mental illness, mentally ill persons who are incarcerated stand a good chance of re-offending.

"If we don't get adequate mental health treatment in prison, then we get into a situation where $50 and a bus ticket gets them right back in about three months, so we haven't saved anything," he said.

Floyd Long, with the Tulsa County Pre-Trial Release program, said he did an informal study of people arrested in Tulsa County and found that 10 percent to 11 percent self-reported having been diagnosed with some sort of mental health problems.

He said tracking mental illness and making sure people arrested receive adequate treatment might be made easier if confidentiality laws were loosened. In addition, resolving cases quickly seems to help, he said.

DOC officials said about 17 percent of the prison population have been prescribed a psychotropic medication at some time, although only about 200 beds are reserved specifically for inmates with mental illness.

Bob Mann, with DOC, said that while inmates sometimes must be segregated due to mental illness, the system has enough beds for incarcerated men. However, he said he is concerned about a lack of space for women inmates.

Turning to the issue of police dealing with mental health patients, Long said often officers are not adequately trained to recognize signs of mental illness. He said mental health patients often need to be treated differently than the general population or else situations can escalate to the point they are arrested and must go through the system. …