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4 dead as severe storms hit Houston, TX; Election Protection Program eases access to voting information; surge in solar installations eases energy costs for Missourians; IN makes a splash for Safe Boating Week.

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The Supreme Court rules funding for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is okay, election deniers hold key voting oversight positions in swing states, and North Carolina lawmakers vote to ban people from wearing masks in public.

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Criminal Justice Month: Alternatives to incarceration for mental health issues

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Wednesday, March 20, 2024   

March is National Criminal Justice Month and advocacy groups are drawing attention to how people with mental illness are overrepresented in jails and prisons.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 43% of people in state prisons and 44% of people in local jails have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder. However, placing them behind bars may not be the best solution.

John Mitchell, mental health court judge in Kootenai County, said about half of the people in his caseload have some sort of mental health diagnosis, but noted jail does little to change their behavior.

"Unless you can figure out a way to help those people address their mental health concerns, ideally at the same time they get their chemical dependency treatment, they're just going to keep coming back," Mitchell observed.

Mitchell acknowledged jail can be necessary for a person's safety or the public's safety but it has not often been the case in his 22 years heading the mental health court. He meets with people in the court typically over two years, on a weekly basis to begin with, and said he plays the role of cheerleader and coach.

John Hall, group facilitator for NAMI Idaho, has been incarcerated and said he was living with undiagnosed and untreated mental health issues. He argued diversion programs like Mitchell's are a better alternative to sentencing and added it is important to educate people before they become incarcerated.

"They have an opportunity beforehand to change the course and direction of their life through the management of their diagnosis," Hall emphasized. "Or maybe their life choices or maybe the environment that they have been in for some time."

Hall also noted peer mentor programs within Idaho's jails and prisons are showing promising results for people who are incarcerated.

Mitchell stressed it is powerful to watch the people he works with change.

"To see somebody with those things stacked against them deal with all their issues all at once and succeed, it's one of the coolest things you can do as a judge," Mitchell observed.

Disclosure: NAMI Idaho contributes to our fund for reporting on Mental Health. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.


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