Decriminalization of Mental Health Bears Results in One Arizona City

25July
2019

The criminal justice system can be tough on people with mental illnesses. However, some jurisdictions are pursuing the decriminalization of mental health with positive results.

They include Yavapai County in Arizona where Sheriff Scott Mascher is so enthusiastic about his department’s Reach Out program that he wants to tell the world about it.

Decriminalization of mental health offenses proves positive in Yavapai County

He told PoliceOne, the program is making inroads in the problem of people with mental health issues and substance abuse in the criminal justice system.

About five years ago, Mascher was working on a voter issue to extend a jail sales tax. He kept hearing about people with mental illness and substance abuse problems who got caught up in the criminal justice system. Family members would call for help over a mental health crisis and the mentally ill person would end up in the justice system, usually for a minor offense like trespassing or disorderly conduct.

He told PoliceOne, every year more than 11 million people are processed by the prison system. Many of them are low-level, misdemeanors involving no violence. However, the offenses cost local governments about $22 billion annually. The article noted 64 percent of these inmates suffer from mental illness and 68 percent have a substance abuse disorder.

Mascher said the recidivism rate for inmates in Yavapai County is particularly high, rising to 80 percent. People who suffer from mental illnesses are locked up 4 to 8 times longer than people without mental illnesses who are arrested on the same charges. 

Seven times more people who suffer mental health problems end up in jails or prisons than at treatment facilities that can help them. The authorities in Yavapai tackled this problem. They started meeting with their local judiciary, county attorney, schools, mental health providers, legislators, and concerned citizens. They set up a local mental health coalition which proved to be a template for change.

At the Garcia Law Firm, attorney Bernardo Garcia is alarmed about how people with mental illnesses get trapped in jail and prison. We do everything possible to keep your mentally ill family member out of incarceration. Call us at (602) 340-1999.

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