Efforts to stop the cycle of hospital-to-street-to-jail for mentally ill offenders
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- There's a sickness in the system stealing the lives of society's most vulnerable people by pushing them back and forth from the streets to jail.
In part two of our series, Sickness in the System, we look at advances in mental healthcare and the bold vision for a massive overhaul.
It looks like your everyday doctors' office, though a closer look at the patients of Center One reveals how their needs go far beyond the common cold, as a typical day may see someone screaming for attention.
As Tony Zipple, the President and CEO of Seven Counties Services explains, "I know the folks I see are friends and neighbors and co-workers and family members of my neighbors of friends. These are members of our community and I know that we should do better for them."
But the goal of "better" often proves frustrating for Dr. Zipple, who says people in the mentally ill community are as quickly thrust in the criminal justice system as they are into the mental healthcare system. Part one showed how Chester Fitzpatrick fit into that cycle -- 79 arrests and 1,559 days spent behind bars at Metro Corrections.
Dr. Zipple says, "The safety net for people with serious mental illness has continued to deteriorate over the last several years. States overall are spending $4.5 billion less on mental health services than they were before the recession."
Zipple says Kentucky lacks enough physicians, treatment centers, and case workers to fix the problem. It sends the Chesters of our community on a roller coaster ride back and forth from the streets to jail.
Zipple is not the only one who's frustrated by it -- listen to Judge David Holton II of Jefferson District Court when asked if he ever feels as if his hands are tied: "Oh, certainly, I had a young man in court two months ago who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia...turns out the guy has no mental health services."
And Asst. Jefferson County Attorney Susan Jones says she often feels unable to help. Why? "Because of the numbers," she says.
So there's a new idea, a remedy in the works, which Zipple calls, "Assertive community treatment." The proposal would partner Seven Counties with Metro Corrections. As Zipple explains, "you've got a nurse and doctor and social worker and outreach worker all involved in it."
It involves 24/7 wrap-around care outside the jail walls at a facility that comes with affordable housing and job resources.
Zipple ran a similar program called Thresholds in Chicago. As a result, the mentally ill population at Cook County jail dropped 85 percent.
Judge Holton says, "They're not in a position to make a good decision until they get the medicines and services they need, and to me it's our responsibility to help them get there."
It is a bold idea that comes with a hefty price tag. Estimates run $21,000 per year, per patient. But Zipple maintains, "We're going to pay for it one way or another. We're much better off making sure people get their lives back. This is one of those opportunities we have to increase public safety, decrease cost to taxpayers, and to do the right thing for people who are really vulnerable."
Some wonder if Zipple or Seven Counties will even be around to see it, through. The agency serves 32,000 patients a year in Trimble, Shelby, Henry, Spencer, Oldham, Bullitt, and Jefferson Counties. Last month the company filed for bankruptcy, saying changes in state pension laws would make business unsustainable.
In the meantime, the doctors and patients and prosecutors and judges will continue to rely on the program already in place.
Jones says, "We started in 2004 a mental health diversion court. It's called the Enhanced Supervision Docket." In exchange for a guilty plea, someone in Jefferson County who has a mental illness can get their sentence stayed. They get a treatment plan, an assigned social worker, and must report to court every two weeks.
Jones explains, "It's been really amazing to watch the transformation in a lot of these participants simply having people taking an interest in them."
But with the judge, prosecutor and public defender all donating their time, the group is only serving a handful of people -- 25 currently.
The need appears much greater. "Keep plugging away and every success is a success," Jones says.
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