Sheriffs Applaud President for Statement on Mental Health in Jails

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

WASHINGTON – The National Sheriffs’ Association (NSA) commends President Trump’s speech to the National Association of Counties (NACO) when he said: “County jails were not meant to deal with the mental illness problem. “It’s not compassionate to leave those with mental illness on the streets… We must get Americans the help they need.”

“We applaud the President for drawing attention to the single biggest issue facing sheriffs and their jails today,” said NSA Former President Sheriff Greg Champagne, St. Charles Parish, LA.  “Jails have become the defacto mental health facilities in this country and people need to get the care they need, so the federal government must do all that it can to address this problem.”

Sheriff Champagne is in DC for the NACO NSA Task Force on Mental Illness as its co-chair and is meeting with leaders on Capitol Hill to discuss the issue.

Chillingly, jail cells have become America’s “new asylums.”  In the wake of de-institutionalization of the mentally ill, the number of people suffering serious mental illness in jails and prisons is now 10 times the number receiving treatment in state psychiatric hospitals.

In 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, there were 356,268 inmates with severe mental illness in custody, compared to just 35,000 being treated in hospitals.  In 44 of the 50 states, a single jail or prison is home to more mentally ill inmates than the largest state psychiatric hospital.

Jails are singularly ill-equipped to serve as mental health facilities, and the mentally ill do not belong behind bars. Nevertheless, it has fallen on the nation’s sheriffs to initiate a long-overdue conversation on a problem that for decades has been ignored. 

For starters, Congress must immediately reexamine an arcane Medicaid eligibility rule whose only practical effect is to deprive low-income, mentally ill individuals of desperately needed psychiatric care and condemn them (and society at large) to a dangerous pattern of recidivism.

By the numbers:

  • 40 percent of jail inmates have a chronic medical condition
  • 44 percent of jail inmates have been diagnosed as having a mental disorder
  • 63 percent of jail inmates have a substance use disorder
  • 70 percent of the 2 million youth arrested every year in the U.S. suffer from a mental health condition
  • 96 percent of jail detainees and inmates do not receive a prison sentence and return to the community

About the National Sheriffs’ Association:
The National Sheriffs’ Association is one of the largest associations of law enforcement professionals in the U.S., representing more than 3,000 elected Sheriffs across the nation, and with a total membership of more than 14,000. NSA is a non-profit organization dedicated to raising the level of professionalism among Sheriffs, their deputies, and others in the field of law enforcement, public safety, and criminal justice. Throughout its seventy-nine-year history, NSA has also served as an information resource for all law enforcement, as well as State governments and the Federal government.