When police in Kansas arrest someone who behaves strangely, the officers usually don't know whether the person is mentally ill. Now they can find out.
Gov. Sam Brownback this month signed into law a bill that allows police to get more information on a suspect's mental health, a change that was a cornerstone in a Johnson County effort to keep the mentally ill out of jail.
A recent study found that 17 percent of inmates in the Johnson County jail were mentally ill, consistent with the national rate. It also found that many of them cycle in and out of that jail, where it costs taxpayers $100 a day to board each inmate.
That is common in jails statewide. The new law is intended to give police the information they need to take mentally ill offenders someplace where they can be treated rather than to jail.
"Sheriffs and police officers all over the state supported this," said Rep. Pat Colloton, R-Leawood.
Previously, police could get mental health information on a suspect only in a clear health emergency, which did not cover common arrests.
Now they can call county mental health officials, for instance, and find out whether a suspect has been treated at their facilities in the last year.
"It's very limited, but it is enough," Colloton said.
Colloton serves on the Johnson County Criminal Justice Advisory Council, a 26-member committee made up of criminal justice and community leaders, including the sheriff and district attorney.
It released a study this year that called in part for broad coordination of the justice and health systems to keep petty criminals who are mentally ill out of jail.
The group also obtained federal grants that will pay for an increased mental health diversion program and a mental health expert who will be dispatched with Olathe police in cases involving mental illness.
Grant money also funds a team of experts, including one on mental health, as part of a jail work-release and re-entry program.