More mental health services could keep people out of jail

Permanent housing and employment combined with professional and/or peer support "are better than keeping people in jail," Jennifer Johnson says, "and they're 100% cheaper." (Credit: Getty Images)

Improving access to community-based mental health and substance use disorder services could keep more people out of jail and save counties money, a new study finds.

As reported in the journal Psychiatric Services, the researchers identified 59 recommended mental health practices, but found that United States counties, on average, offered only a few of them.

“The importance of this study is that most counties offer only a tiny fraction of the community services that are necessary to keep people out of jail,” says lead author Jennifer Johnson, professor of public health at Michigan State University.

“We’re hoping that by publishing this article, county administrators will look at the list of services that they don’t yet offer and try to make them happen.”

The researchers, including Maji Hailemariam, assistant professor in the College of Human Medicine, reviewed earlier studies to identify the 59 effective practices and then surveyed 950 US counties to ask which of those services were available to people interacting with police, 911, courts, jails, probation, or parole.

Most counties offered very few of the recommended mental health and substance use disorder services. For example, only 29.2% of the counties offered permanent supportive housing for individuals with mental health conditions and only 27.2% offered assertive community treatment. Both services are helpful for keeping individuals with serious mental illness stable in the community and out of jail.

The lack of adequate treatment programs was particularly acute in rural counties, according to the study.

Because Medicaid is suspended for those who are incarcerated, even for a day, the authors recommended that counties help reinstate that coverage when a person is released.

“We’ve had people who have been standing in line at the pharmacy to get their medications,” Johnson says, “and they’re told, ‘Your Medicaid is suspended because you’re in jail,’ and yet the person is standing right there.”

While some of the evidence-based services can be offered by county jails, most can be provided through community mental health and other community-based programs, Johnson says.

Offering treatment for physical pain to prevent addiction to opioids can alleviate the burden on county jails, she says, as can providing supported employment or walk-in crisis centers.

Permanent housing and employment combined with professional and/or peer support “are better than keeping people in jail,” Johnson says, “and they’re 100% cheaper. Our goal is to keep people treated and stable in the community and not cycling through local jails.”

Source: Michigan State