When stopping crime begins with mental health

Jennifer Hemmingsen
Published: February 25 2013 | 8:55 pm - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 11:56 am in

More than 30 percent of the inmates in Iowa’s prisons have some form of serious mental illness. Many thousands more are on probation or parole. Last month, State Department of Corrections Medical Director Dr. Harbans Deol called corrections “the largest mental health institute in Iowa.”

But only a fraction of those offenders are what we would consider true lawbreakers. Most are Iowans who have fallen through the cracks.

“Most times, what we’re seeing is that people with mental health issues don’t wish to be criminals, they just do things that make them criminals,” Gary Hinzman, director of the 6th Judicial District Department of Correctional Services, told me this week. “If you can correct the mental health issues, you can often set them back on a path to good citizenship.”

So why has a groundbreaking DOC residential mental health facility been standing empty for four years? Where’s the $2.3 million it would take to staff it? Not in Gov. Terry Branstad’s proposed fiscal 2014-15 budget. It’s becoming an all-too familiar omission.

The ANCHOR Center was built to house 26 of the 6th District’s parolees and probationers whose criminal activity is rooted in mental health issues, and to provide outpatient services for 150 more. It would have been — still would be — the first facility of its kind in Iowa.

But its opening was delayed when funding went dry in early 2009, in the thick of the recession. Back then, Hinzman was hopeful that it was just a temporary setback. “I think we just have to ride out the current financial crisis,” he told me then. Fast forward four years, and funding for those residential beds still hasn’t come through. Today, only outpatient services are being run from the ANCHOR Center.

“We’re really missing a component where we might be able to bring somebody in from the community when we see that they’re really coming out of structure and stabilize them for a period of time, make sure they’re safe and the community’s safe,” Hinzman said.

PUBLIC SAFETY

Funding the ANCHOR Center’s beds would stabilize two dozen of the district’s most high-needs parolees and probationers with mental health issues, the ones who pose the greatest potential threat to our community. It would fill a now-empty space between supervision and incarceration, providing structure and helping facilitate their successful re-entry to the community.

“I think it would have a pretty good impact on recidivism, and I think it would have a greater impact on public safety,” Hinzman said. If only the people holding the purse strings would listen.

When Gov. Branstad visited with The Gazette about a month ago, he was glad to talk about the reduction in prison counts under his watch. The Board of Parole’s aggressive approach helped reduce the state’s prison population by about 800 inmates from fiscal 2011 to 2012 — a nearly 24 percent increase in the number of parolees. Branstad expects another increase this year.

“That’s the equivalent of a whole new prison that they’ve reduced,” Branstad said in our meeting. He praised community corrections as an important step between prison and the street. But when asked about funding unused and underused community corrections facilities such as the ANCHOR Center, Branstad was much more eager to point the finger backward at his predecessor than to talk about the future.

“The big problem is they made budget decisions without knowing, without having the money to operate it,” he told us. “We don’t operate that way. We just don’t.”

Branstad’s right to crow about reducing the burden on our still-overcrowded prisons, and $2 million is nothing to be spent lightly.

CRITICAL SERVICE

But it’s pound-foolish to let the ANCHOR Center languish while our prisons fill up with offenders whose criminal behavior is a symptom, not the problem.

It should go without saying, most people with mental health issues don’t pose any danger to society. But it’s irresponsible not to follow through on funding when we’re so close to adding a critical service to help keep our communities safe from those who do. One only has to look back at tragic incidents in Parkersburg and near Sigourney to know the worst that can happen.

The Department of Corrections isn’t supposed to be in the mental health business, but there’s no denying the current reality.

State leaders need to face reality and give the DOC the tools it needs.

Comments: (319) 339-3154; jennifer.hemmingsen@sourcemedia.net

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