Two county sheriffs told state lawmakers that county jails are becoming the facility of last resort for Iowans with mental-health problems.
“We’re all hearing the same thing. The sheriffs across the state continue to raise this as one of their major, major issues. Mental health is a huge problem,” said Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson, whose mental health assessment and jail diversion program was touted as a model for early detection and intervention of people needing substance abuse or mental health treatment rather than incarceration.
“In a growing scale and a growing need, we’re seeing more and more violent offenders, more and more people who are those square pegs in round holes,” Thompson told members of the Iowa Senate Judiciary Committee, who are assessing the problems mental-health issues create for public safety and Iowa law enforcement after a series of deadly shootings around the country. Most recently, an incident at a Connecticut elementary school where a gunman with a history of mental-health problems killed 20 children and six adults.
Story County Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald said local officials in Ames came together to create a crisis intervention unit that has had positive results in diverting people facing criminal offenses who need mental health services to the facilities where they can receive proper treatment. However, funding sources continue to decrease, making it a challenge to keep such services available as Iowa’s county-based mental health system makes a transition to a regionalized service delivery network.
“Unfortunately, throughout our country, the county jails are the largest mental health facility within a county,” said Fitzgerald, who recently served as the national leader of a county sheriffs’ association. “County jails do not have the funding or skills to appropriately care for those individuals afflicted with a mental illness.”
What do you think of the situation? Are Iowa’s jails the best place for offenders with mental health issues? Or is there a better solution that should be explored?