Police, judges and elected officials increasingly are pointing out that a high proportion of people in jail are mentally ill, and that in many cases they shouldn't be there. Stateline reports that many cities and counties are trying to reduce those numbers by training police to deal with mental health crises, creating mobile mental health units to assist officers, and establishing mental health support centers as an alternative to jail, among other measures. A coalition including the Council of State Governments Justice Center, the American Psychiatric Foundation and the National Association of Counties are running a campaign to encourage local jurisdictions to collect data on the jailed mentally ill and adopt strategies to avoid incarceration. The MacArthur Foundation plans to send $75 million to jurisdictions interested in reducing unnecessary incarceration of people, including the mentally ill.
State spending on mental health services has shrunk through the decades. Between 2009 and 2012, states cut back mental health spending by a total of $4.35 billion, according to a study by the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors. Although some of that funding has been restored in recent years, it has not been enough to meet the need, with the result that more mentally ill people are ending up in jail. “It's been frustrating and tragic that so little has been done to address the problem,” said Ira Burnim, legal director of the Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. “There's not a lot of magic in the solution.” Many are hopeful that the Affordable Care Act's Medicaid expansion, which extends health benefits to poor, single adults, will enable many to get mental health treatment and avoid the crises that previously landed them in jails. But 21 states have resisted expansion.