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OTHER VOICES: Jails aren’t repositories for the mentally ill

October 11, 2018

A lack of available beds at the Lincoln Regional Center, which serves Nebraskans with mental illnesses, is being felt across the state.

Under state law, inmates on court orders to be restored to sanity or others committed by the mental health board must be treated at the Lincoln facility. But there’s high demand – and wait times – for the limited supply of spots.

At the already crowded Lancaster County Jail, the average stay for inmates awaiting a transfer to the Regional Center was 73 days – nearly two-and-a-half months – in May. In some smaller counties, which have fewer resources at their jails, the wait has stretched to as long as four months.

Jails are not repositories for the mentally ill, yet they now occupy, by default, a role for which they are not equipped. Some entity needs to ensure the safety of these individuals and those around them; unfortunately, that’s fallen to jails.

This was on display at an interim hearing last month by the Nebraska Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, which is studying the lack of mental health services available within the criminal justice system.

By no means is this limited to the county jails, either. Last October, the ACLU of Nebraska released a report that estimated 50 percent of female inmates and 25 percent of male inmates behind bars at state prisons suffer from some form of mental illness.

While numerous Lincoln Journal Star editorials have called on Nebraska’s correctional system – which oversees the Regional Center – to make major overhauls, its prison facilities are designed to house more difficult inmate populations, including the men on death row. County jails, however, primarily hold suspects awaiting trial or low-level misdemeanor offenders.

Big difference there.

And the shortage of resources at the state level is being passed down to the local level. Sure, Nebraskans aren’t on the hook for the expensive cost of caring for the mentally ill. But they’re being nickeled and dimed at the local level because those same individuals are being held at county jails.

Brad Johnson, director of the Lancaster County Jail, told the Judiciary Committee that specialty and infirmary care for inmates with mental illness cost significantly more than for the general population. That’s understandable – but many of them landed in custody for petty crimes, often the result of or exacerbated by an underlying mental illness, that carry minimal sentences.

Rather than getting immediate treatment, though, the dearth of beds at Regional Center means these Nebraskans remain in jail – merely marking time rather than marching forward.

But the real, meaningful progress will occur when offenders with mental illness can get the care they need at the location they need. And today’s status quo, one of months-long detentions at county jails, must be changed.

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