Newspaper article The Tuscaloosa News

Mentally Ill Crowding Jails, Officials Say

Newspaper article The Tuscaloosa News

Mentally Ill Crowding Jails, Officials Say

Article excerpt

TUSCALOOSA | About 40 percent of the inmates at the Tuscaloosa County Jail receive some form of psychiatric care, including, in some cases, psychotropic drugs, according to the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff's Office.

Having a mental health court would help alleviate overcrowding at the jail and get people with mental illness the help they need, Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Ron Abernathy told the County Commission on Wednesday. The jail now houses about 630 inmates, which is over the jail's 540-inmate capacity, he said.

"The problem is, someone (with mental illness) gets off their meds and a family member doesn't know what to do, so they call the Sheriff's Office," Abernathy said. "The (person) may end up in the jail 30 to 60 days or even six months for a $300 misdemeanor most people would get out on in a day."

According to a grand jury report in March, the county jail is understaffed, with a ratio of one detention officer to 52 inmates. There is also a "drastic" need for a separate facility for mental health inmates, the report said.

There is a missing link, Abernathy said, because there needs to be case management to help get the people with mental illness who have been charged with minor crimes out of the jail and into community care.

"The jail is the worst place for someone with mental illness," he said.

Abernathy, circuit court judges and representatives of Indian Rivers Mental Health Center and Maude Whatley Health Services asked the County Commission to pay $80,000 a year to add a clinical therapist and a case manager to the existing medical staff at the jail. The therapist and case manager would meet with inmates and determine if there is existing mental illness that would make them eligible for going through a mental health court, instead of the traditional court system.

Under their proposal, the mental health court would allow a conditional release of patients, dependent on their involvement in continued treatment through Indian Rivers Mental Health Center. An inmate would be assigned to a case worker generally for between six to 12 months, or until they "graduate" from the program.

The county would save about $365,000 per year by reducing the jail population by 25-50 inmates, Abernathy said. …

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