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'Jail diversion' program OK'd
Public health committee looking for ways to deal with mentally ill, drug-dependent inmates

Thursday, October 13, 2005
Daily Southtown
by Jonathan Lipman

With more than 1,000 mentally ill inmates sitting in its jail, Cook County is pushing local law enforcement to overhaul the way it treats people with mental illness and dependence on drugs.

While the details and funding are still undecided, the county's public health committee passed an ordinance Wednesday establishing a "jail diversion" program.

The program trains police, jailers, prosecutors and judges to recognize mental illness and route those people out of the justice system and into treatment.

"These are people who often cannot speak for themselves when they're in crisis. This particular group was left behind from the beginning," said Karen Siegel, a volunteer with the county's project task force who presented the program to the committee.

When state mental health hospitals were shut down in the 1970s and 1980s, patients were supposed to be sent to community-based treatment centers, a process that largely collapsed. Mental patients who were poor or lacked family support often were left homeless and were frequently arrested for causing disturbances, trespassing and drug possession.

The diversion program seeks to reconnect those patients with local treatment centers. Under the blueprint approved Wednesday, police could call a 24-hour crisis hot line run by the state and county that would connect them to a local provider.

Only nonviolent offenders would be eligible, and the hot line lets police and prosecutors hand off the patients quickly instead of needing weeks for a referral.

A similar system would connect nonviolent drug offenders to treatment centers. Drug offenses make up more than half of the county's criminal caseload, according to a recent report.

Although county and state budgets are both tight, Commissioner Earlean Collins, who has spearheaded the project, said she thinks both governments will commit money because it will save them money later.

"We are trying to get an intergovernmental agreement, through the Legislature ... so (the state) cannot dump the responsibility for these patients on the county," Collins said.

The ordinance, which is up for final approval at a county board meeting Oct. 18, requires the county to appoint an official advisory panel to design a pilot program and report back within six months.

Chicago police have established "crisis intervention teams" in two police districts and has received federal funding to train officers citywide. Each officer in the team takes a 40-hour course in identifying mental illness and defusing crisis situations.

Those teams have had great success, but the greatest problem remains finding some place to take a patient once the situation has been calmed down, said Chicago police Lt. Jeff Murphy, who trains the teams.

"Most of the areas where we have the highest degree of need is where we have the lowest amount of services," Murphy said.

Siegel said the county may be able to dedicate some of the money used to run the county jail to paying mental health service providers.

Medicaid and private insurance will pay for much of the treatment, Collins said. Right now that money is cut off when mental patients enter jail, but local treatment centers could still bill for their services.

To help keep those centers afloat, the ordinance calls for the county to establish a revolving loan fund that would kick in if Medicaid hasn't paid up within 45 days.

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