Douglas County Studies How to Help Mentally Ill Inmates

DOUGLAS COUNTY, Kan. — Like many cities and counties, Douglas County, Kan., has seen an uptick in the number of people with mental health conditions arriving at the county jail. Last year, the number was nearly 40 percent. In an era where more people in the community suffer mental health impairments and less funding is available for treatment, it’s no surprise. As part of its current study to address jail overcrowding, the county is looking for a new solution.

“These people could be leading productive lives, and instead they are in jail,” said County Administrator Craig Weinaug. “They are not there because of their mental illness, but because a lack of treatment caused them to do something that landed them there.”

The county is studying ways to achieve three separate, but linked, objectives:

• To increase the odds that those with mental illness will stay out of jail by partnering with private-sector providers to provide treatment and resources within the community.
• To establish processes to divert people from incarceration to treatment facilities, such as a specialty “mental health court” that hears cases involving misdemeanors or nonviolent felonies.
• To include improved housing, treatment and resource options for the mentally ill in any proposed plans to expand capacity at the 196-bed county jail, which is currently overcrowded.

Douglas County has already taken steps to improve its ability to safely, effectively and affordably house the growing numbers of people with mental illness. The county offers a jail transition program for those staying more than 30 days; however, the county commissioners and sheriff believe they can do better.

“A lot of counties say this is not our job,” Weinaug said. But with state funding scarce, it has come down to counties to manage the realities that their jails are facing. “The goal of a jail is to help people get better. I want them to be better. What we are doing is good, but we are still a part of the problem. We want to be a part of the solution.”

Daniel R. Rowe is a principal for Treanor Architects Justice Studio based in Lawrence, Kan.