Named to join task force to combat issue
Calling the national mental health system woefully inadequate, St. Charles Parish Sheriff Greg Champagne has been named to a joint task force aimed at reducing jail inmate recidivism by continuing health care services.
The National Association of Counties (NACo) and National Sheriff’s Association (NSA) announced the task force, which is bringing together county officials, sheriffs, prosecutors, judges, public defenders and behavioral health partners to develop a coordinated response to the challenges facing these individuals.
“I am honored to be named as co-chair of this very distinguished national committee,” Champagne said. “I was likely considered for this appointment, probably in large part, to my being very outspoken during my year as NSA president (2016-17) about the increasing problem of so many citizens with some degree of mental illness ending up in county jails all over the country.”
The sheriff called it a two-prong problem.
“The crux of the problem is that an arrestee who is able to post bail continues to receive Medicaid on the outside for all of his or her medical needs,” he said. “When incarcerated, the federal government suspends all such benefits. Sheriffs and their parishes (counties) are then completely responsible. I knew this problem was reaching ridiculous levels when a couple of years back we were faced with an inmate who refused to post bail because he couldn’t afford the health care costs for the illness he had if he was released.
“The costs of his health care could have well exceeded our total per diem we receive from the parish for pre-trial inmates for an entire year.”
Since the inmate posed no safety threat, he said the judge granted him a release.
But Champagne added, although the parish has resources to provide care for mental and non-mental inmates, this isn’t so for many other sheriffs.
“It is tantamount to a massive shifting of the Medicaid-health care problem from the federal governments to counties (and parishes) based upon arrest only – not conviction,” he said. “This is much bigger than just a mental health issue. It is part of the overall health care crisis. The NSA urged Congress to reform this problem, as well when the so-called ‘First Step Act’ was passed. This seemed to fall on deaf ears.”
The sheriff said he was also active with U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy to pass the Mental Health Act of 2016.
“This system must change,” Champagne said. “Our budgets need to go to increasing salaries and benefits for deputies, not medical costs for inmates that the federal government was paying up until the moment he or she was arrested.”
The ‘new asylums’
- Serious mental illness has become so prevalent in the U.S. that jails and prisons are now called “the new asylums.”
- In 44 states, a jail or prison typically holds more mentally ill individuals than the largest remaining state psychiatric hospital; in every U.S. county with both a county jail and a county psychiatric facility, more seriously mentally ill individuals are incarcerated.
- Mentally ill inmates cost more than other prisoners for a variety of reasons, including increased staffing needs.
- Suicide is the leading cause of death in correctional facilities, and studies indicate as many as half of all inmate suicides are committed by the estimated 15 to 20 percent of inmates with serious mental illness.