BANGOR, Maine — Many who walk through the doors at Penobscot County Jail have a mental illness or are experiencing a mental health crisis, and jail officials are trying to divert them from incarceration and into treatment programs, according to Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton.
“Citizens should not have to be incarcerated in order to receive proper mental health services,” Morton said in a Wednesday email.
That’s why Morton is part of a team from Penobscot County heading to Washington, D.C., Sunday for a three-day national summit designed to reduce the number of adults with mental illness and co-occurring substance use disorders in jails. The Stepping Up summit is hosted by the National Association of Counties, the Council of State Governments Justice Center and the American Psychiatric Association Foundation, and it will include county representatives from across the nation.
“Penobscot County is one of 50 counties who will head to D.C. for a national summit on how jails, courts and law enforcement can coordinate to meet this pressing issue,” Juliet Fletcher, spokeswoman for the Council of State Governments Justice Center, said in a recent email. “More than 250 counties representing one-third of the U.S. population have joined a national initiative, Stepping Up, to commit to better meet the needs of those with mental illness.”
People with mental illness are arrested more often and spend more time in jail than the general population, Fletcher said.
“To put the issue in perspective, people with mental illnesses are three to six times more likely than others to end up in jail, most commonly for minor charges like disturbing the peace,” she said. “They’re also far more likely to end up back in lock-up after being released, often for minor technical violations. And this population ultimately costs as much as three times [more than] average inmates while incarcerated. So, clearly there are two crucial costs at play locally: an unnecessary financial burden to taxpayers and a human toll for those endlessly cycling in and out of the system.”
The three national groups, with support from the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, are bringing the county leaders together to collaborate and learn from each other. The National Summit starts Sunday and ends Tuesday.
“I’m in hopes to learn more about how other counties throughout the country are addressing the issue of mental illness in their jails,” Morton said. “This process might help us identify services or practices missing in our region, perhaps even funding opportunities.”
How to pay for programs and resources offered particularly interests Morton, he said.
“We have seen the challenges many people in this state face without proper insurance coverage,” Morton said. “It will be interesting to see how others breach this hurdle.”
In addition to Morton, the Penobscot team will include Penobscot County Commissioner Laura Sanborn; jail administrator Richard Clukey; Jennifer Mehnert, the National Alliance on Mental Illness Maine executive director; and Wally Fraser, clinical supervisor Community Health and Counseling Services.
Penobscot County recently signed a Stepping Up resolution to work with area agencies to reduce the number of people with mental illness in the Bangor jail. The county has a long-running relationship with the National Alliance on Mental Illness Maine and years ago established a committee to help exiting inmates with mental illness connect with area resources to help reduce recidivism.
“Unfortunately, far too often those who go untreated find themselves in crisis,” Morton said. “Oftentimes these crisis situations escalate into serious mental health issues, medical problems or crime.”