Westmoreland Commisioner Ted Kopas: Why who’s in jail matters |
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Westmoreland Commisioner Ted Kopas: Why who’s in jail matters

Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
The Westmoreland County Prison

Would you want a loved one who has a mental illness or developmental disability or suffers from addiction in jail or somewhere that could help that person get better?

County jails, and your tax dollars, increasingly house inmates with such issues. Most pose no public-safety risk. Sadly, county jails are now our nation’s largest mental-health facilities. Offenders must be held accountable, but most have not committed serious crimes. We need more effective use of limited resources to safely provide treatment and support to enhance the odds of those with mental-health and substance-abuse issues becoming productive members of society.

Counties nationwide spend nearly $100 billion annually on health care for inmates, roughly 65 percent of them awaiting trial. As far back as 2004, Pennsylvania had twice as many mentally ill people in jail (12,081) as in hospital psychiatric units (6,128). In 2010, when I took office, the average population at our 711-bed county jail was 511. In 2016, it was 636; just last month, 675. Housing one inmate costs property taxpayers more than $25,000 a year. Shockingly, nearly half our inmates are on psychotropic medication.

Counties are the primary providers of criminal-justice and jail operations. More than 80 percent of Pennsylvania sentences are served at the county level. Of the approximately 37,000 inmates in Pennsylvania’s county prisons on an average day in 2014, 11,714 had a mental illness; 4,097 had a serious mental illness. How does incarcerating them assist with providing them care and serving our community?

Adding to the problem is state hospitals’ shortage of psychiatric, or forensic, beds for county inmates with mental-health issues. Just 237 forensic beds are available statewide, including Torrance State Hospital in Derry, and about 250 inmates await appropriate services while imprisoned — where symptoms can become increasingly significant. Locally, we have taken steps, through drug-court and counseling services for the addicted and the disabled, but more support and assistance is needed.

A collaborative initiative between the state and counties is needed to effectively address the forensic-bed shortage.

Moreover, greater focus must be placed on treatment and restoration services within the prison system, including expanded options for mentally ill, addicted and developmentally disabled individuals to obtain care and treatment in the community rather than in prison. Effective best practices and joint training for prison administrators, county mental health staff, the judiciary, law enforcement, the medical community and others, in close partnership with the commonwealth, should be immediately implemented.

Prison is simply not the place for many of these individuals. We must change the perception of who is in jail and better understand them for a better return on our tax dollars. More effective caring for the damaged and weak is not only the right thing to do, but also has a permanent positive effect on everyone’s lives in our community.

Ted Kopas ([email protected] or, a Democrat in his second term as Westmoreland County commissioner, serves on the Comprehensive Behavioral Health Task Force for the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.

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