In Chicago’s Cook County Jail, an estimated one in three inmates has some mental illness. At least 400,000 U.S. inmates suffer mental illness—a population larger than the cities of Cleveland, New Orleans or St. Louis, says the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The group estimates that between 25 and 40 percent of all mentally ill Americans will be jailed or incarcerated at some point in their lives, reports The Atlantic.
Chicagoans with mental illness end up in jail through “a chain of small decisions by different local officials,” says the magazine. Police officers can choose to take a mentally ill person home, to the hospital, to a shelter, or to jail. Prosecutors can choose whether to bring charges. Judges can choose to set higher or lower bail amounts, determining whether poorer defendants can avoid pre-trial detention and keep their jobs and housing. Once a person reaches the jail, the local sheriff can't simply decline to take them into custody. In Chicago, that responsibility falls to Tom Dart, the 52-year-old sheriff of Cook County, who supervises 6,900 sworn officers. All incoming staff, including the 300 to 400 new correctional officers hired annually, now receive 60 hours of advanced mental-illness treatment training. His officers can't simply be guards anymore, Dart emphasizes. “You have to be a doctor. You have to be a nurse. You have to be a social worker. You have to be all of these things.”