One puzzle piece for helping reduce the population at the Sedgwick County Jail is finally in place. The city of Wichita began operating the state's first mental health court this month — though it will take a while before it has a significant impact.
As mental health facilities have shut down throughout the state, more people with mental illnesses have ended up in local jails.
A 2005 study of the Sedgwick County Jail found that 1,280 individuals with mental illnesses were booked into the jail during the year. And 33 percent of those individuals were booked more than once.
The majority of those arrests were for nonviolent misdemeanor crimes, such as trespassing, disorderly conduct, public nuisance and failure to appear in court — violations that often were related to mental illnesses.
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Once arrested, these individuals tend to stay in jail longer than other inmates, as they are less likely to make bail, less likely to mount an adequate defense, and more likely to violate terms of a conditional release.
Because of their medication needs, inmates with mental illnesses also can be expensive to house — costing as much as $600 a day.
Wichita's mental health court meets four times a month and seeks to keep some of these individuals out of jail by connecting them with mental health resources. The court is being directed by Wichita Municipal Court Judge Bryce Abbott and works with the Sedgwick County Offender Assessment Program, an existing effort to divert mentally ill people from the jail, and Comcare, the county's community mental health service.
"We think we have a better way of dealing with people who have these problems," Abbott told The Eagle editorial board.
Once the court ramps up, it expects to serve about 100 individuals at any given time. Given how often these individuals tend to cycle through the criminal justice system, that could be a significant help in reducing the jail population.
Another valuable effort to help keep mentally ill people out of jail involves training law enforcement officers and dispatchers to recognize and know the best ways to respond to people with mental illnesses. A crisis intervention team, which formed two years ago in Wichita, is seeking to provide intervention training to 20 percent of front-line officers in the county.
One challenge of helping some individuals with mental illnesses is getting them to utilize available services and take their medications, which sometimes have negative side effects. The mental health court requires them to adhere to a treatment plan— though that's still no guarantee that they will do so.
"It can be a challenging population to work with," Abbott said.
Though not all efforts will be successful, it's better for the mentally ill and for taxpayers to pursue treatment rather than repeated incarceration.