Mentally ill citizens have long been an issue for the Sheriff’s Department and law enforcement. But on Friday morning, Sheriff Jim Hammond, Congressman Chuck Fleischmann and a bevy of other government officials announced the awarding of a grant that would help alleviate the problems people with untreated mental illnesses cause within the judicial system.
“The Department of Justice has awarded a $2.2 million contract to the Hamilton County Sheriff’s office and its partners to help alleviate overcrowding in the jail because of mental health inmates,” said Sheriff Hammond. “People who are not there for felony charges, but their biggest issue is because they were panhandling or laying around the street and were off their medication, and are now taking up space in the jail. Very expensive space.”
The grant is for the Frequent Users Systems Engagement program, a two-year pilot project designed to assist Hamilton County’s chronically homeless and mentally ill avoid incarceration and achieve stability.
“This is a very special kind of grant," said County Mayor Jim Coppinger. "We spend close to $100,000 per day with people who are incarcerated. Some of those are our most vulnerable population, those who are mentally ill. People who are in our jails who just need the right medication, or need housing or whatever. This grant is going to assist with some of that.”
The grant would help provide housing and support for the mentally ill for two years. Depending on how successful the county is with the grant funds, more grant money could come the county’s way. Janna Jahn, one of the masterminds of the idea, was confident this project would succeed.
“It’s a solution that is evidence-based and we know it works," said Ms. Jahn. "We’ve got data from other communities that show it, so we’ve decided to do a two year pilot to test it here in our community, so that we can learn from our own experience and collect our own data. The goals or the outcomes we’re after is not just reductions in incarceration, but also hospitalization and use of emergency rooms.”
Commissioner David Sharpe expanded on how the grant could assist hospitals just as much as it would help jails. While jails are not mental health mental health facilities, neither are hospitals. And by helping mentally ill people, this grant could clear up hospital beds and time for people who urgently need them.
“Not only is this program great for reducing costs to the taxpayers with regard to criminal justice expenses,” said Commissioner Sharpe, “but it also takes a tremendous burden off of our local hospitals, because of all of the time these individuals spend in our hospital rooms for indigent care, they end taking up space for those that need quick access to emergency care.”
Congressman Fleishmann focused on the positive ways this grant could help the mentally ill become productive members of society. In his eyes, many struggling with mental illness have great potential, they simply struggle with their illness. By treating the mentally ill, society as a whole can benefit.
“If we could put resources into what I’m trying to do, which is treat mental illness on all levels, it’s going to help the criminal justice system and it’s going to help us in society,” said Congressman Fleishmann. “And it’s going to allow these great individuals to develop their full potential and I hope someday, we’re going to see even more robust funding and treatment for mental health. And fortunately, attitudes are changing towards those with mental health afflictions.”
Congressman Fleishmann's own family has been affected by mental illness, so for him, helping those who struggle with mental illness is important.
“I saw it firsthand. It was a member of my family who was and is afflicted,” said the congressman. “A brilliant artist and person who has suffered with mental health all of his life. When he’s medicated, he does exceedingly well and he wants to be a big part of society. I saw him being shunned in school and by society and he was unfortunately involved in the criminal justice system. Many times it was a situation where people who could have cared for him or helped the situation instead chose to judge him in a way that was unfortunate.”
He said that there are several other grants in the works, with some of those being related to mental health, law enforcement, and other such projects. The $2.2 million grant has not been officially approved by the County Commission, but all in attendance (which included two commissioners and the county mayor) expect it to be approved during the Feb. 26 meeting.