Mental Health Services Critical to Prison Reform

The group, whose recommendations on parole and probation passed the Legislature last spring, has turned to mental health issues in prisons and jails, which contributes to overcrowding.

“We’ve always had a lock them up and throw away the key mentality,” said Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, the chairman of the task force. “If we look at mental health treatment, drug treatment, it’s a lot cheaper and lot more effective at reducing the crime rate than the way we’ve had done it.”

The Alabama Department of Corrections spends about $12 million a year on mental health treatment. Corrections has diagnosed about 3,000 inmates –12 percent of the current state prison population – with a chronic mental illness.

Nationwide, about 16 percent of the prison population suffers from mental illness. Foster Cook, director of Jefferson County’s Community Corrections program and a member of the task force, thinks there could be more. He said about 39 percent of those who return to prison were unable to find adequate treatment after their initial release. Parole, probation and community corrections officers surveyed say substance abuse services have, at best, limited availability.

“A lot of them said these services were not available,” he said. “It was even worse for mental health issues.”

The task force is looking at integrating mental health programs into the corrections system. The hope is better delivery will lead to better results after release from prison, cutting the recidivism rate and overcrowding. Through August, the state’s prisons held 24,333 inmates in a system built for 13,318 – an overcrowding rate of just under 183 percent.

Delays in parole and probation, along with sentencing of inmates for technical parole violations, have contributed to the overcrowding crisis. Gov. Robert Bentley signed a bill in May that aimed to address the overcrowding issue with new investments in pardons and paroles and post-release supervision, with an eye toward reducing recidivism – and overcrowding.

Both Ward and Cook said in separate interviews that improving access to mental health treatment would not only improve the health of those released, but help drive down costs.

“What we really need is centralized assessment services, where people under supervision can go to a place where they can get a quick and easy assessment by a qualified staff using modern ways to make assessments to determine if they have a problem and what help is needed,” Cook said.

Cook said such a program should be available in the state’s five largest counties – Jefferson, Mobile, Madison, Montgomery and Shelby.

The task force will also look at mental health courts. Jefferson County revived its court this year after the county’s bankruptcy forced it to shut down. The courts, consulting with the district attorneys, review cases involving nonviolent Class B or C felonies and prepare treatment plans for those with serious illnesses, with the goal of diverting people from jail and reducing recidivism. Jefferson County has a total of 58 people enrolled in the program, with 65 identified and in process at the Birmingham mental health court.

Ward also said the task force would also look at the referral process for mental health programs. Juvenile justice will also be a focus as the task force looks for ways to stop people “from going down the wrong path.”

No concrete proposals are yet developed, nor are cost estimates. Ward said prison reform in the long run will save the state money.

“Funding is going to be part of any long-term solution,” Ward said. “The key is how do we make it cheaper and much more efficient in the long run in keeping crime down.”

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