Sheriff says jails should not serve as mental institution

Praises new legislation that addresses costly, dangerous problem

St. Charles Parish Sheriff Greg Champagne praised newly passed federal legislation as finally addressing the costly and dangerous national problem of jails serving as mental institutions.

“Right now, in jails across the county and, particularly in my jail, there are people who suffer from mental illness and, quite frankly, do not belong here,” said Champagne, also president of the National Sheriff’s Association (NSA).

Although the sheriff declined to single out local cases, particularly those still in the courts, he did say parish jailers have been reporting a rising number of mentally ill people taken into custody in the last five to 10 years.

“We have a problem with mentally ill people, there no doubt about it,” said Champagne, who emphasized it’s a national problem and particularly in more populated areas of the U.S. “There is no magic bullet because the mentally ill don’t believe there’s anything wrong with them. I’ve seen them come through the criminal justice system for years and it’s really sad. We’re hoping for better things.”

Congress recently passed the Mental Health Reform Act of 2016, which was spearheaded by U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy and U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy.

The measure calls for sweeping overhaul of mental health assistance such as a national plan to end incarcerating individuals with serious mental illness for nonviolent offenders, early screening, enhancing the behavioral health workforce, as well as implementing a study to support oversight of care for the mentally ill.

As head of the NSA, Champagne said he earlier expressed this concern to Cassidy, who invited him to discuss the problem at a mental health summit.

“I applaud them for their actions and implore them to implement this as quickly as possible,” Champagne said. “This long overdue legislation will provide those in need the long overdue mental health care they need and deserve to give them a permanent long-term solution to their struggles.  It is my hope that this change in policy will break the cycle and stop the revolving door at jails of people with mental health issues.”

Champagne said the repeat offender rate among the mentally ill is higher than for other released inmates.

“Jail, for some, has become the vehicle to obtain mental healthcare,” he said.

The numbers are staggering with this problem and complex, as well as costly.

“Across the country there are 10 times the number of people who are mentally ill in jail than there are in state facilities that could properly care for them,” Champagne said. “Jails are not equipped or trained to care for these people in need and certainly not fiscally privileged to appropriately house a mental health facility.”

The Treatment Advocacy Center estimates as of 2012 (latest data available) there were 356,268 inmates with severe mental illness in custody compared to 35,000 getting treatment in hospitals. In 44 states, a single jail or prison is home to more mentally ill inmates than the largest state psychiatric hospital.

Champagne added they adapted by taking on the cost of adding psychiatric staff, training for administering medication and isolating mental patients in jails for added safety.

“Unfortunately, the system has become a revolving door of neglect, incarceration and renewed neglect,” he said. “Most mentally ill people end up in jail for the first time for a small offense like disturbing the peace. However, once released and without proper care, he or she will likely be back again. In most cases, this will be for a more serious crime with the potential of escalating to the worst types of crimes.”


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