Sedgwick County leaders are treating the challenge of handling mentally ill inmates at the jail as a corrections and budget problem, which it is. They should give Sheriff Robert Hinshaw the green light to create a mental health pod in the jail, using the additional $700,000 they wisely earmarked in the 2011 budget for dealing with such inmates. But much more attention must be paid to mental illness as a societal problem — including by state legislators who act as if community mental health centers and state hospitals can be chronically underfunded without consequence.
In recent years, Sedgwick County has made great strides in reducing the percentage of inmates afflicted by mental illnesses to about 20 percent of the jail population. Some commissioners aren't as convinced as Hinshaw that the jail now needs a dedicated pod for such inmates. But he's the expert, and he argues persuasively that the jail needs a secure place to house and manage the inmates whose mental problems and alleged crimes are most serious.
Looking at June jail population numbers, one obvious goal should be to narrow the huge gap between the average time spent in the jail by all inmates, 16.1 days, and by the 50 mentally ill inmates facing the most serious charges, 156.46 days.
If the pod translates into better management of inmates' illnesses and behavior, taxpayers should benefit. So should the inmates and their families. Concentrated services for mentally ill inmates could lead to more stability on the outside, meaning fewer rearrests and emergency room visits.
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The county and its criminal justice partners at the city of Wichita have been enterprising in dealing humanely and efficiently with the mentally ill across the process, with programs such as Crisis Intervention Team training for law enforcement, the Sedgwick County Offender Assessment Program and a mental health court. More creative thinking will be needed.
But even when individuals are spared time in jail, they still need access to mental health services. And because so many of those who need help are uninsured or don't qualify for Medicaid, shrinking state budget support for mental health is not sustainable. Between 2006 and 2010, the county's Comcare mental health agency saw its state funding decline from $4.9 million to $1.9 million. If not for the 1-cent sales-tax increase, 2011 funding would be far more bleak.
Meanwhile, during the past fiscal year, Kansas' three state mental hospitals spent at least one-third of the time over their licensed capacity, variously diverting patients to private units far from home, closing their doors to voluntary admissions and relegating people to waiting lists. Private inpatient units are dwindling.
"The state hospitals are being overwhelmed," Roy Menninger, chairman of the Kansas Mental Health Coalition, recently told a legislative committee.
The economy has made matters worse, as Kansans are newly faced with the loss of their jobs and homes.
As officials in Sedgwick County try to manage their local challenge with a mental health pod and otherwise, 20 years after the state's landmark Mental Health Reform Act, state leaders must ensure they have not simply replaced one broken, underfunded system with another.