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Cook County Sheriff Dart: Jailing poor, mentally ill is unjust

Wednesday, April 06, 2016
Daily Herald
by Madhu Krishnamurthy

The numbers of mentally ill people housed in the nation's prisons and jails are staggering, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart says, and many of them shouldn't be there.

Dart, speaking Wednesday at Elgin Community College, has led a campaign to reduce what he calls the unjust incarceration of the poor and mentally ill. He's been recognized by health advocacy organizations for trying to change the criminal justice system, which perpetuates a revolving door at jails. His presentation was part of the college's Humanities Center Speakers series.

"What is occurring is it's misusing the criminal justice system for low-level offenders, but the largest chunk we see are the mentally ill," Dart said, noting that offenses commonly include retail theft, drug possession, criminal trespassing, prostitution and disorderly conduct.

Nationwide, of the two million people incarcerated, an estimated 356,000 prisoners suffer some form of mental illness. Cook County Jail alone houses as many as 3,000 people with a diagnosed mental illness, making it the largest mental health facility in the country, Dart said.

Similarly, in 44 out of 50 states, the largest mental health institutions are jails or prisons, he added.

"They were designed for bad people ... instead we are putting people who are sick (in prison)," Dart said. "We used to have a pretty robust system of state hospitals for people who were mentally ill."

Dart said the increase in mentally ill prisoners corresponds with an equal decline in the number of people treated at mental health hospitals. The original goal of eliminating mental health hospitals in favor of sustaining and helping those people in communities through services has not materialized, he said.

Many such hospitals have been shut down in Illinois because they weren't run well and the state has cut funding for community-based mental health services.

From 2009-2012, states have cut their mental health budgets by $1.6

billion -- $187 million in Illinois alone, according to theNational Alliance on Mental Illness.

Gov. Bruce Rauner is proposing further cuts of $82 million, Dart said.

"Law enforcement was not supposed to be engaged in this area. This is not what police officers signed up for. They weren't trained for it," Dart said.

Dart highlighted his office'seffortsto shorten prisoners' stay in jail, and help those who are mentally ill find the resources they need to survive outside and not repeat the cycle that landed them in jail in the first place. In 2015, prisoners spent a total of 218 years in the Cook County Jail in "dead days" served beyond their eventual sentence, according to Dart.

Dart introduced a pilot program known as the "Rocket Docket," which ensures that nonviolent defendants charged with low-level crimes, such as retail theft or criminal trespassing, will have their cases disposed of within 30 days or be released pending trial. Due to the changes, the jail no longer is overcrowded except for the hospital division for the mentally ill, he said.

Last year, Cook County Jail sent roughly 140 inmates -- those found unfit to stand trial -- to the Elgin Mental Health Center for services.

Among the nation's most crowded jails, Cook County may get relief later this year with the opening of a 24-hour triage center in Chicago where police can take people experiencing psychiatric or substance-abuse crises. The goal is to ease pressure on the jail, where a fifth of detainees are locked up because of mental health problems, according to officials. The center is based on successful models in other cities.

Cook County Jail employs 4,000 people serving 10 million meals, 37,000 primary care visits and 14,800 psychiatric visits.



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