Roy Exum: We Can Fix Our Jail!

Friday, January 6, 2017 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

In Hamilton County it is no secret we have a terrible crisis right now. We have over 600 prisoners in our county jail that was never designed to hold over 500. It is in the most squalid condition imaginable. Captain Gene Coppinger, who has somewhat heroically managed the overcrowded and understaffed boondoggle, said in the 30-plus years he’s spent in law enforcement and corrections it is the worst he has ever seen.

In mid-November, Captain Coppinger took me on a private tour. His intent and my desire was to “see everything.” I was horrified and yet deeply moved. No human being should have to sleep on a cold concrete floor wrapped in only a blanket, his head just six inches from another man’s urine. But before I walked from behind the bars, I knew if ever there was a community that could do something about it we’re the one.

Sheriff Hammond will tell you he’s running a mental hospital. Of those 600 prisoners he has locked up right now, it is easy to believe at least 40 percent have mental illness issues. The national average, according to top psychiatric studies, is 44 percent of men and 61 percent of women of those incarcerated in the United States suffer from emotional and mental issues that can readily be diagnosed by professionals.

So we dump them in jail … it’s the final stop. We can be better than that. Every “client” is somebody’s son, your neighbor’s daughter, your high school teammate, a kid who has been homeless since age 11.

Sheriff Hammond will tell you that not one member of his department is a mental health expert but that his corrections officers dole out a quarter-million dollars in psychotropic medicines every year. It costs the taxpayers $75,000 a day to operate the county jail. About 10 percent of those in the county jail are violent criminals.

If we as a society, and as a city, could handle our mentally challenged properly, as well as our homeless (and, yes, that overlaps often) our jail would most certainly not be at capacity and would be far more functional. And the savings would be astronomical.

There is a brilliant jurist in Miami-Dade County -- Judge Steve Leifman – who with a staff of 24 handles the criminal mental-health program there.  It is one of 350 mental health courts in the country, this up from 150 in 2007, and Hamilton County just had the first two graduates in its fledgling program.

Right after Judge Leifman identified the underlying problems, Miami was quick to build Crisis Intervention Teams that realize mental illness can be handled far more effectively than the Dade County jail ever can. Since 2008 the two largest police forces in Dade County, Fla., have responded to 60,427 “crisis calls” and – this is unbelievable – has since made only 119 arrests. That means over 60,000 people have gotten the proper type of treatment that a civilized society should afford one and all.

By identifying mental and homeless issues rather than criminal acts, Dade County has actually closed two of its jails. By using the proactive mental health approach, Dade County has saved the taxpayers about 25,000 jail days (over 68 years) since 2008. Before the crisis intervention, about 50 percent of mentally-challenged violators would return to jail – today it is … drum roll, please … right at 6 percent.

Misdemeanors? Recidivism has dropped from 75 percent annually to 20 percent, the savings in the millions of dollars. Similar programs are spreading like crazy. Charlotte, N.C., has virtually eliminated its homeless problem. Tampa has had spectacular results.

The individual success stories are more amazing. Justin Volpe, age 33, was put in jail 10 years ago when he refused to take medicine for his treatable schizophrenia. He took street drugs instead and got picked up for petty theft. His family got him into Judge Leifman’s jail diversion program and today he is one of four graduates who are peer specialists in the Criminal Mental Health Project.

Justin has helped 700 through the Mental Illness Project program. Today he’s married with a three-year-old son and a full caseload. So listen to what he says and see if it sounds familiar. “My family got me out of jail, I went to a recovery house but I stopped taking my meds and started to slip and slide.”

The secret to what saved him? Mental health court ain’t 30 days paid by insurance; it is six months to two years of accountability, with progress reports, drug testing, and constant encouragement. Don’t you see? He became part of a mental health projects community and its oversight program. That can happen in Chattanooga.

Melba Pearson of the Miami-Dade County’s DA’s office said, “I think every single county should have something like this. Mental health (is) not something that is exclusive to any part of the country. It’s something that’s universal, could hit any walk of life, any socioeconomic group.”

So instead of “jailing” mental illness, let’s arrange freedom from it. We have people among us who need help. We must recognize it, enable them overcome it, and give them a life free of torment. In return, we will save millions of dollars but, far better, some lives along the way.

Stay tuned…something wonderful is in the air…

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