Help – not jail – for Pierce County’s mentally ill

The News TribuneJune 21, 2013 

They’re called the Top 55, which sounds like a good thing. It’s not.

They’re revolving-door customers of the Pierce County Jail – repeat offenders who have also had contact with the mental health system. Many have a history of substance abuse.

As a group, the Top 55 puts an inordinate financial strain on the jail, which is facing a $4.2 million shortfall. Each has gone to jail at least five times in the past 12 months, and in 2012 they accounted for 5,499 days in the facility.

Because of their mental health and substance abuse issues, these repeat inmates often require special handling and services that can cost the county roughly double what it otherwise would to house the average offender.

Some of these inmates have serious mental illness problems. And while county officials try to provide help in the form of assessment, medication and visits with mental health professionals, nobody really thinks a jail is a good substitute for a psychiatric hospital. But state cuts in mental health services mean more people aren’t getting the treatment they need; often that contributes to them committing a crime and ending up in jail — again and again.

One tactic looks promising for addressing the problem of repeat inmates with mental health issues: the Community Re-entry Program. It’s run by Greater Lakes Mental Healthcare of Lakewood under contract to OptumHealth, the for-profit company that in turn is under contract to the state to provide mental health services in Pierce County.

The program operates around the clock with an eight-member team of mental health and chemical dependency professionals, peer case managers and a nurse practitioner who can prescribe medication.

The team, which is currently working with 24 of the Top 55, assesses inmates’ problems and sets up a plan for them to get treatment, counseling and such outpatient services as housing upon release from jail. The goal: to address the mental health and substance abuse issues that are causing them to re-offend.

So far results have been mixed: Of the 20 program participants who were released from jail, half have been arrested for new crimes. The good news: Half have stayed out of jail.

The program’s fairly new, so it’s hard to tell yet how well it’s working. But until the state makes a bigger commitment to inpatient and community treatment of the mentally ill, this kind of strategy with repeat offenders holds hope for at least keeping jail costs lower in the long run than they otherwise might be.

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