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Don’t use our jails as wards

Cuts in programs for the mentally ill just shove the problem elsewhere

Published: Friday, March 30, 2012 5:00 a.m. CDT

As Illinois digs from its budget mess, it’s clear that cuts must be made. But some of the broad cuts aimed at social service agencies that help our state’s most at-risk populations will make it likely that taxpayers still are going to pay, one way or another.

A recent Northwest Herald story examined the issue of the population of McHenry County Jail inmates who have reported mental illnesses. Both anecdotal and empirical evidence suggests that cuts in funding for programs that support the mentally ill simply are shoving the problem in another direction.

A review of jail statistics showed that between fiscal 2010 and 2011, the number of inmates that require special needs documentation went from 340 to 891. Meanwhile, the amount of inmate contacts with a jail social worker increased from 1,298 to 2,591.

The trend is the same elsewhere. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said that reductions in funding for the mentally ill have made Cook County Jail the largest mental health provider in Illinois.

While mental illness always has been an issue for jails and always will be, jails never were meant as places to warehouse the mentally ill.

When mentally ill individuals break laws that require bond or are punished with either a jail or prison sentence, it’s something that the judicial system must deal with.

But housing non-violent mentally ill inmates whose crimes include smaller offenses such as disorderly conduct or trespassing is a tremendous waste of resources and a sad reflection on society’s inability to deal with social problems associated with mental illness.

Besides the moral ramifications, it costs $83 per day to house a county jail inmate. That doesn’t include the cost of health care or psychotropic medication that they may require.

It presents a danger to them and could present a danger for other inmates.

We hope this problem is given serious attention as lawmakers continue to hammer out budget details.

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The Morris Daily Herald Editorial Board is led by Publisher Gerry Burke and editors Patrick Graziano and Mark Malone. It makes its editorial decisions in consultation with other members of the Herald staff.

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