Police interaction with the mentally ill has grown dramatically with increasingly tragic results and considerable expense to state and local governments, reports the Associated Press. An estimated 16 percent of U.S. prison and jail inmates are mentally ill, compared with 5 percent of the general population. Pennsylvania spends $140 a day on inmates with serious mental illness, compared to $80 a day on average inmates. Miami-Dade County, Fla., spends $4 million a year on overtime to manage mentally ill prisoners, because “they have to be checked every 15 minutes,” Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Steven Leifman told the AP yesterday. “Often we have to put a guard right outside their door, not because they are dangerous but because they are suicidal,” said Connecticut State Rep. Michael Lawlor, co-chair of the Council of State Governments criminal justice-mental health consensus project.
A proposed Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act has drawn unusually bipartisan support in Congress. The Justice Department plans to endorse the bill today. The bill would provide $100 million each in 2004 and 2005 to states and localities that devise programs in which criminal justice agencies collaborate with a mental health agency. “Our justice resources need to be dedicated to violent criminals and homeland security, not to low-level offenders with mental illness who could be better served in treatment, at significant savings to taxpayers,” said state Sen. Robert Thompson, who chairs the Pennsylvania Senate Appropriations Committee. Leifman said the problem is that “we’ve criminalized mental illness in this country.”