PA Joins Drive To Reduce Mentally Ill Behind Bars

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Forty percent of Philadelphia jail inmates are on psychotropic medications; 17 percent have what’s considered a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression. At the state level, 29 percent of inmates have a mental illness. People with mental illness stay longer in jail, and are more likely to return. Bruce Herdman of the Philadelphia Department of Prisons says, “This is the largest psychiatric hospital in the state of Pennsylvania.” Today,  the Philadelphia Inquirer reports, state officials will announce a multiyear initiative aimed at safely reducing the number of people with mental illness in Pennsylvania jails — a problem that has so far been intractable in the face of criminal-justice reform efforts.

The Stepping Up Initiative, led by the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center with support from the state, aims to gather comprehensive data on how people with mental illness interact with the criminal justice system, then develop an evidence-based approach to addressing whatever’s landing them there. “I’ve been talking about and frustrated with these issues for well over a decade,” said Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, who manages a state prison population that includes more than 14,000 people with mental illness. “This process is really the brightest glimmer of hope I’ve seen, where it actually appears that we have a shot at coming up with some way to finally have an impact on this population.” It’s a county-by-county effort, though a handful of states, including Ohio and California, have also launched statewide Stepping Up initiatives. “The premise behind Stepping Up is: We’ve got to get serious about tackling this crisis of mental illness in jails. It’s not a new problem; it’s been around for decades,” said Richard Cho of the CSG Justice Center. “There have been some promising efforts, but none of it’s been taken to scale.”

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