CARTHAGE, Mo. — Estimates vary on the number Jasper County Jail inmates who have mental illnesses or substance-use disorders — but not for long.

For the first time, officials will take a detailed census of mental illness in the county jail. With help from a federal grant, a new jail employee will screen defendants for mental illness upon their arrival. A trained clinician will make regular jail visits to make preliminary diagnoses.

When the grant expires in two years, county officials will have a clearer picture of the overlap between the criminal justice and behavioral health systems in Jasper County. That overlap is a problem for the jails and the people in them. Jails spend more money to house people with mental illnesses, and recidivism, a contributor to jail overcrowding, is often driven by cycles of addiction and mental illness, according to law enforcement officials and mental health professionals.

“There’s always been a gap in identifying individuals in the jail that could have a mental illness,” said Erik Theis, courts administrator for the 29th Circuit, adding “right now, we’re going off of anecdotal information, whereas this program will give us a two-year snapshot of what is actually coming into the jail.”

Theis estimates that 12 percent of jail inmates suffer from a mental illness or substance-use disorder, but such statistics are not specific to Jasper County.

Information about mental illness and substance use is useful at every step of the criminal justice system. Tipped off to a mental illness, jailers can transfer defendants to special cells. At the courthouse, defenders and county officials can use the information to advocate for sentences that focus on treatment instead of jail time.

And once the grant expires, the data will be analyzed by Kevin Bryant, a professor of sociology and criminology at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.

“We’ll see if this is a program that’s viable” based on his analysis, Theis said.

The data collection and analysis will be paid for by a two-year, $208,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. The new jail employee will begin the screenings when the grant begins in January, and a clinician from the Ozark Center in Joplin will begin regular visits to the jail.

The data collection initiative is part of the county’s broader plan for addressing mental health issues in the jail. Dubbed Stepping Up, the plan was approved by the County Commission last week.

Randee Kaiser, Jasper County sheriff, says he wants inmates to have access to mental health services while they move through the jail and courts.

“Many times the problem is that we get them in, get them through and they’re out the door — and it’s like, better luck next time,” he said. “We don’t do anything to help them succeed.”

Stepping Up gives an overarching title to some steps the county has already taken: training sheriff’s deputies to handle mental health issues; and creating special court dockets that require sobriety and mental health care as a condition of release.

The data collection project, however, is new. So is a planned quarterly meeting about mental health and the jail, which will bring together law enforcement officials, public defenders, court employees and mental health providers. The date of the first meeting has not been set; Kaiser said it will take place during the first quarter of 2018.

Jails are only one area where mental health issues can be addressed in the county, says Mark McDonald, program director of ASCENT Recovery Residences in Joplin.

But he said a lack of resources for mental health care is felt disproportionately in the jail.

“If accessing mental health was an easier task, that would reduce, in my opinion, a lot of criminal activity,” he said.

When the grant expires at the end of 2019, officials will use data from the program to decide whether it should be continued on the county’s dime, Theis said.

McDonald, a former police officer, previously worked in an Ohio county that paid a mental health counselor to work in the jails. He said the presence of that counselor, combined with training for jailers, helped reduce the number of violent incidents at the jail and helped connect mentally ill inmates with treatment upon their release.

Federal grant

A two-year, $208,000 federal grant will allow Jasper County to take stock of mental health issues in its jail.

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