U.S. jails hold 10 times as many people with serious mental illness as state hospitals do, says the Treatment Advocacy Center, a nonprofit that lobbies for better treatment options for people with mental illness. To deal with the problem, NPR reports, San Antonio and Bexar County, Tx., have transformed their mental health system into a program considered a model. Today, the jails aren’t full, and the city and county have saved $50 million over the past five years.
The effort has focused on an idea called “smart justice,” diverting people with serious mental illness out of jail and into treatment instead. San Antonio requires all police officers to take a 40-hour course called Crisis Intervention Training to learn how to handle mental health crises. People who commit a felony still go to jail, regardless of their mental status. San Antonio built another option: the Restoration Center, a facility with a full array of mental and physical health services. The center was the brainchild of Leon Evans, director of San Antonio’s mental health department. With the help of a judge, he worked to get the funders in various departments to talk about the money they were all spending on mental health. Once they stopped looking at mental health as an isolated expense, the groups realized they were spending enormous sums of money and offering poor care.