Children of the Incarcerated Face Multiple Traumas: Study

A West Virginia researcher calls them “prisoners of fate” and argues that “Family Impact Statements” assessing the health and psychological effect of a parent’s imprisonment should be mandatory in pre-sentencing reports.

Children whose parents are incarcerated are the “invisible victims of mass incarceration,” and judges and corrections authorities need to pay special attention to the emotional trauma and financial burdens they encounter, argues a new paper in the Maryland Law Review.

Amy B. Cyphert, author of the study, and a lecturer at the West Virginia University College of Law Lecturer, said research offered several pathways that provided a “ray of hope” for young people when one or both parents was behind bars.

Providing a more “positive experience”  during the visits of children to the facilities where a parent was held has also been shown to reduce recidivism rates among offenders, she wrote.  According to Cyphert, children often resist going to facilities because of the stigma involved.

Cyphert recommended that judges in the federal system order that “Family Impact Statements” be included into a defendant’s presentence report, using what she described as “a heretofore largely unused ‘catchall provision’ of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.”

The author admitted that such impact statements, which provide information that assesses  the “financial, social, psychological, and medical impact on the defendant’s family, especially any minor children,” have encountered resistance from some who might see them as a means of allowing offenders to escape responsibility for their crimes.

But she noted that “states that have adopted the practice, even on a trial basis, have reported encouraging results,” citing for example New York.

Cyphert said it was crucial to keep in mind that despite committing no crime, children of the incarcerated face deteriorating physical and psychological health, and problems at school, which are reflected in high rates of asthma, obesity, depression and anxiety.

More worryingly, childhood traumas may in turn lay the seeds for increased risk in adulthood for drug abuse, unemployment and involvement with the justice system itself.

Cyphert recommended that authorities consider extending visitation hours for children and partnering with nonprofit organizations to solve logistical issues like transportation to prison.

In a criminal justice system disproportionately represented by black, impoverished and minority groups, the statistics regarding their children are similarly disproportionate.

Between 1980 and 2000, the number of children with a father in prison rose by 500 percent, according to an Annie E. Casey Foundation policy report in 2016.  This is consistent with the increase in prison population in the United States.

The statistics paint a bleak picture.  Black children are 7.5 times more likely, and Hispanic children 2.6 times more likely than white children to have a parent in prison, the study said.

Cyphert noted the “very obvious conclusion” that having an incarcerated parent negatively impacts all aspects of a child’s wellbeing and development. Often, a family’s finances suffer as well. The lost parental income, court-related fines and fees, and prison transportation costs create strains on families.

She wrote that there were rare cases in which a parent’s incarceration may be beneficial, for instance if they come from  homes where there is abuse or neglect.

Beyond the financial burdens, some children are separated from families when parental rights are terminated. One out of every five children entering the U.S. welfare system has an incarcerated parent.

“Although these children are blameless, policy makers, judges, and prison officials in charge of visitation policies have largely overlooked them,” Cyphert wrote.

The full article can be accessed here.

Lauren Sonnenberg is a TCR news intern. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Why Sentencing Reform Lost Big in Ohio

Ohio State University law Prof. Douglas Berman says a somewhat similar Oklahoma initiative that passed in 2016 sought a modest statutory (not constitutional) change, and legislative insiders were not part of drafting the Ohio measure.

Ohio voters soundly defeated a drug sentencing and prison reform initiative known as Issue 1 on Tuesday. Ohio State University law Prof. Douglas Berman says he “did not expect that it would get crushed, going down to defeat 63.5 percent to 36.5 percent.” Berman says Issue 1’s huge loss is startling given that Ohio’s Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown won re-election by 6 percent and its Democratic Governor candidate Richard Cordray, who endorsed Issue 1, lost by only 4 percent points.  This means that a huge number of progressively minded voters decided to vote for liberal candidates and against Issue 1.

Berman says Issue 1’s big is even more startling given that a somewhat similar ballot initiative in 2016 passed in Oklahoma by 16 percent, 58 percent to 42 percent.  Given that Oklahoma is a seemingly much “redder” state than Ohio and that 2016 was seemingly a somewhat “redder” election than 2018, the 43% difference in outcomes in these initiatives leads Berman to conclude that just how a criminal justice reform is pursued through a ballot initiative can make a big difference. The Oklahoma initiative sought a fairly modest statutory change; the  Ohio measure pursued a fairly aggressive set of reforms that would have been locked into the state constitution.  Perhaps even more importantly, legislative “insiders” and other state GOP leaders were integrally involved in drafting and getting the Oklahoma initiative on the ballot in 2016.  The same type of insiders seemingly had no role in the Ohio campaign, and nearly all of them — most notably, all the GOP candidates and many prominent judges, prosecutors and police — actively campaigned against Issue 1.


MD Lacks Data to Assess ‘Justice Reinvestment’

Maryland passed a justice reform law last year but hasn’t produced required data to assess whether it is working, say Ryan King and Keith Wallington of the Justice Policy Institute.

Over 50 years, Maryland has adopted a “tough on crime” agenda: punitive sentencing, restrictive parole and collateral consequences affecting life after incarceration. While these policies sounded “tough,” they did little to deliver on promises of safety while simultaneously increasing the justice system’s disproportionate impact on people of color, Ryan King and Keith Wallington of the Justice Policy Institute write in the Baltimore Sun. One year ago, the state enacted a Justice Reinvestment Act (JRA). Drug penalties were amended, and mandatory minimums were recalibrated. Resources were earmarked for drug and mental health treatment, opportunities were created to reduce prison time, and parole was expanded for older and infirm individuals.

Reforms were projected to reduce the prison population by about 1,200 people, saving $80 million over 10 years. This first anniversary of the JRA provides an opportunity to assess these reforms. Because of a lack of data, we can’t document the impact of — and can’t fully implement — the JRA, King and Wallington say. It’s impossible to know if the JRA is working absent individual-level data linked across agencies including law enforcement, courts and corrections. Maryland tracks system-level trends, such as the number of people in prison or the use of county detention facilities, but those are affected by factors having little to do with the JRA. An oversight board is required to “monitor the progress and compliance” of implementing the JRA, but Maryland has done too little to make cross agency individual-level data available to enable that monitoring, say King and Wallington. Because we have no idea how many people have been sentenced, or have not received a mandatory minimum, we can’t identify how much money was saved; it’s impossible to reinvest money we can’t identify. If Maryland fails to produce data, it will be unable to fund crucial crime prevention programs, the authors write.


Music Superstar John Legend Joins Ohio Rally for Justice Reform

Some of the country’s most well-known “celebrity” advocates for criminal justice reform, including singer John Legend, are using their star power to persuade Ohio voters to support a referendum aimed at helping reduce penalties for some drug offenses and allow inmates to reduce their terms by taking part in rehab. Opponents say such changes shouldn’t be included in the state constitution.

Some of the country’s most well-known “celebrity” advocates for criminal justice reform, including singer John Legend, are using their star power to persuade Ohio voters to support a referendum aimed at helping reduce the barriers faced by former inmates to finding employment and re-integrating into civil society.

At a rally Sunday in Norwood, Ohio, reported by WCPO, Legend said passage of the referendum, known as Issue 1,  “will save lives, families, and strengthen our communities.”

Issue 1 would amend the state constitution to reduce penalties for using and possessing drugs like heroin, meth and cocaine. Those charges would become misdemeanors and carry no prison time.

“Every day people are struggling from the cycle of addiction,” Legend said. “They’re in and out of incarceration, and they’re getting worse, not better, while their communities and families continue to suffer.

Legend said the focus should be shifted from incarceration to treatment.

“People with addiction don’t need to be warehoused behind bars with their problems ignored. They need treatment. They need help,” Legend said.  “We’ve tried the option of locking people up. It hasn’t solved the opioid epidemic. It hasn’t solved our overdose crisis.

Another well-known supporter is Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow,” which chronicled the high U.S. prison population and its disproportionate effect on African Americans.

“Issue 1 will help to remove the barriers to work for Ohioans with a drug conviction,” Alexander says, the Cincinnati Enquirer reports.

Ohioan Piper Kerman, who wrote “Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison has also added her name to the list of supporters.

Opponents, who have raised considerably less money, are relying on local politicians from both parties to carry their message: judges, prosecutors, coroners and sheriffs. “This is major criminal justice policy being locked into the constitution,” said Paul Pfeifer, a former Ohio Supreme Court justice and Republican lawmaker who now leads the Ohio Judicial Conference. “That’s just the wrong place to do things.”

Supporters of Issue 1 say they have little faith in the GOP-controlled legislature’s political will to make meaningful change.

Issue 1 would reduce penalties for some drug offenses, allow prisoners to reduce their time behind bars by up to 25 percent for completing rehabilitative, work or educational programs, and prohibit prison time as a penalty for probation violations that are not new crimes.

It also would allow those previously convicted of felony drug possession to ask a court to have those charges reduced to misdemeanors, and allocate any money saved from sending fewer people to prison to drug treatment (70 percent), trauma care for crime survivors (15 percent) and local governments to adjust to new rules (15 percent.)


LGBTQ Community Overrepresented in Justice System, Report

One-size-fits-all justice systems fail lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people, who experience worse outcomes and are overrepresented in every part of the justice system, according to a new study released by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition (TCJC).

One-size-fits-all justice systems fail lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people, who experience worse outcomes and are overrepresented in every part of the justice system, according to a new study released by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition (TCJC).

Authors stated that “about 4 percent of Americans identify as LGBTQ, but only 8 percent of individuals in state and federal prisons and 7 percent of individuals in city and county jails identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.”

Specifically, in Texas, as of July 2018, 4,499 people in Texas prisons identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex, they continued.

The study found that, nationally, between 13 and 15 percent of youth who enter the justice system identify as LGBTQ, with roughly 300,000 LGBTQ youth arrested each year and of the seven million youth that reside in Texas, 158,500 (2 percent) identify as LGBTQ, including 13,800 transgender youth.

“For many LGBTQ youth, the combination of family rejection, mental health conditions, and substance use leaves them with few options for shelter, support, and safety,” said Ryan Carlino, the report author in a released statement.

“As LGBTQ youth shuffle between homes, foster care, shelters, and the streets, they are increasingly more likely to come into contact with law enforcement a situation that is only exacerbated by the lack of access to appropriate mental health and substance use support.”

Unaddressed trauma experienced during childhood may carry forward into adulthood, the study noted.

Often, LGBTQ adults in Texas experience mental health conditions at double the rate of the general population, while also having fewer supports from family and the community and when combined, these factors, contribute to higher rates of incarceration among LGBTQ people, authors said.

TCJC made the following policy recommendations:

  • Expand services and support for unsheltered and homeless LGBTQ youth and adults.
  • Develop a process for LGBTQ youth to obtain new government-issued identification to ensure their gender designation reflects their identified gender.
  • Establish mental health care and substance use services for LGBTQ youth and adults.
  • Require Crisis Intervention Training for law enforcement officers to respond to LGBTQ youth and adults in crisis.
  • Divert LGBTQ individuals out of the justice system and address their needs through community programs.
  • Prohibit discrimination of LGBTQ people in employment and housing; a lack of access to these necessities increases the likelihood of system involvement.
  • Create an independent oversight entity to monitor conditions, allegations of abuse, and deprivation of rights, as well as identify opportunities for improvement for all incarcerated individuals, including vulnerable populations such as those who are LGBTQ.

A full copy of the report can be found here.


African-American Voters Want Pretrial Change: Report

African-American voters want change at the front door—or pretrial stage—of the criminal justice system, according to a new study by the Pretrial Justice Institute. The study found that 78 percent of African-American voters want to reduce the number of arrests for low-level, nonviolent offenses by issuing citations rather than arresting people.

African-American voters want change at the front door—or the pretrial stage—of the criminal justice system, according to a new report by the Pretrial Justice Institute.

The report noted that African Americans are disproportionately penalized by detention decisions that are based on wealth instead of safety, and, they are more likely to be required to pay money to be released from jail before trial and to pay higher amounts.

For example, from Los Angeles to Baltimore, African-American communities are losing tens of millions of dollars to money bail payments—dollars that cannot be recovered, even if the charges are dropped or the person is found not guilty, authors said.

In sum, African-American voters are “ready for change.”

Data revealed that 72 percent of voters agree that the criminal justice system needs significant change and 86 percent of African-American voters believe that wealthy people enjoy better outcomes from the criminal justice system than poor and working-class Americans.

More, the study found that 78 percent of African-American voters want to reduce the number of arrests for low-level, nonviolent offenses by issuing citations rather than arresting people and 73 percent would limit the number of days a person not charged with a serious violent crime can stay in jail pretrial if he or she cannot afford money bail.

Significantly, African American voters also wanted community based support, the study revealed.

A total of 65 percent of African-American voters would stop the practice of jailing people who cannot afford money bail and 90 percent would support educational courses and counseling to help people released before trial show up for their court appearances and not be arrested on new charges.

Authors concluded that unnecessary pretrial detention due to an inability to pay money bail has serious and compounding consequences.

“People lose their jobs, their housing—even custody of their children. Innocent people are pressured to accept guilty pleas. Even three days in jail can leave some people more likely to get arrested on new charges or to fail to appear in court.”

A full copy of the report can be found here.


Consider a Defendant’s Family and Job before Pretrial Detention: Study

Courts should make decisions on whether to release criminal defendants ahead of trial using the same careful, evidence-based analysis now used for civil defendants, says a professor at the Wake Forest University School of Law.

Criminal courts should consider defendants’ personal and professional lives when determining whether to grant bail, according to a forthcoming paper in the Georgetown Law Journal .

Russell M. Gold, an associate professor at the Wake Forest University School of Law, argued that the “presumption of innocence” should be foremost in the minds of prosecutors during the pretrial process, reserving detention only for those cases where they can demonstrate “likelihood of a defendant causing irreparable injury.”

Gold said judges should be required to explicitly analyze how detention would harm the personal family or economic circumstances of defendants.

“Criminal courts should not simply ignore that a defendant may lose her job, housing, or custody of a child,” Gold wrote. “Rather, [they] should consider those costs to defendants, their loved ones, and the broader public; and detain defendants only when the benefits of detention outweigh those substantial costs.”

In his essay entitled, “Jail as Injunction,” Gold drew what he called a “troubling contrast” between how pretrial decisions were made in criminal and civil cases.

While motions for preliminary injunctions in civil cases are resolved based on written briefings supported by sometimes-extensive evidentiary submissions, and after often-lengthy hearings, pretrial detention decisions speed through the criminal legal system—affording defendants only minutes to explain why they should be permitted their freedom pending trial.

“This disparity is unjustifiable,” he writes. “It is troubling that people can lose their liberty without having been convicted of a crime more easily than a corporation can be ordered to stop doing some activity until the court can figure out who is right.”

Nearly half a million people who haven’t been convicted of anything spend on average one month in pretrial detention, according the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Kalief Browder

Kalief Browder committed suicide after spending three years in pretrial detention on a charge that was later dismissed. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

For some, detention could last years, with tragic results. Gold cited the case of Kalief Browder, who committed suicide after spending three years awaiting trial in New York’s Rikers Island on a theft charge that was eventually dismissed. He was just 16 when he was detained.

Browder’s death led to senators Kamala Harris and Rand Paul and introducing—via a joint column in The New York Times—a bipartisan legislation to help states to tackle bail reform through federal block grants.

“In this historical moment, where pretrial detention and bail systems are changing in many jurisdictions, the preliminary injunction comparison offers a valuable lens through which to reconceptualize pretrial detention,” Gold writes.

The harms of pretrial detention extend to the entire judicial process, Gold wrote, noting that defendants held in detention before trial are often more likely to plead guilty or to be convicted.

“One recent study found that defendants who are detained due to their inability to afford bail have a 30 percent greater chance of being convicted and are likely to be incarcerated for 18 months longer than defendants who are not detained pretrial but are otherwise similarly situated,” he wrote.

Gold said adopting his recommendations could lead to lower costs of pretrial detention, post-trial incarceration, and reduced recidivism.

The full report can be downloaded here.

This summary was prepared by TCR news intern J. Gabriel Ware. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Should Parole Hearings Be Off-Limits to Prosecutors?

Prosecutors often show up at parole hearings to influence decisions on whether to release individuals they have helped convict. But a Boston College law professor says justice is better served when they “stay home and keep quiet.”

Prosecutors should “stay home and keep quiet” when individuals they have helped convict appear at parole hearings, according to a research paper published in the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law.

Noting that many states already prohibit prosecutors from testifying in person at discretionary parole hearings—although they can submit written statements—Boston College Law School Professor R. Michael Cassidy argues that similar practices should be extended to all states.

“I recognize that this is an uphill battle, given the political clout prosecutors wield before state legislatures, and the many other urgent reforms needed in our criminal justice system,” Cassidy wrote in a paper for the Boston College Law School Legal Studies Research Paper Series, based on remarks presented at a symposium.

But he said some degree of “prosecutorial restraint” would be welcome to counteract the “undue influence” prosecutors now have in determinations of whether to parole prisoners, particularly those convicted of serious crimes like murder.

Such influence undermines the purpose of Supreme Court rulings that paved the way for individuals sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed when they were juveniles to seek release from prison.

As an example, he cited a stiff warning from a prosecutor that a Massachusetts inmate who was granted a parole hearing after spending over 40 years behind bars for the murder of his parents and sister “will kill again” —a warning that apparently convinced parole board members to deny release.

This was an example “of a prosecutor offering a prediction of future behavior that as a professional matter he is simply unqualified to make,” Cassidy wrote.

Prosecutors should be zealous advocates on behalf of the state during a trial, but continuing their adversarial role once an individual has been sentenced is inimical to the goal of serving justice, the paper argued.

Once a defendant has been convicted and sentenced, the prosecutor should act as a “minister of justice,” providing only factual and legal assistance to parole boards, wrote Cassidy.

Some 38 states now provide some form of discretionary parole for adult prisoners.

Prosecutors are entitled to give input in some fashion to the parole board in those hearings, particularly if they possess “highly relevant, post-conviction information unavailable from documentary materials or the testimony of victims,” Cassidy wrote.

But if they do not possess that information, “I urge prosecutors to stay home and keep quiet,” he continued.

Once a case closes and an individual is sentenced, Cassidy argued, prosecutors should not act as advocates in the administrative setting of a parole hearing, and put their “thumbs on the scale” of parole decisions.

Citing the work of Pace University Prof. Bennett L. Gershman on prosecutorial ethics, Cassidy said prosecutors have the power and discretion to “threaten, intimidate and bully other actors in the criminal justice,” including “defendants, witnesses, attorneys, and even judges.”

“Parole board members are no exception,” he wrote. “Since most chief state prosecutors in the United States are elected, they have political constituencies of their own to bolster their influence.”

Ideally, Cassidy believes, prosecutors should not be allowed to testify at a parole hearing and should only be able to submit written comments in rare circumstances in which he or she has information otherwise unavailable to the parole board.

He observed that the Supreme Court has recognized that a parole decision is meant to be a “discretionary assessment of a multiplicity of imponderables, entailing primarily what a man is and what he may become rather than simply what he has done.’

Cassidy described this as a risk assessment, arguing prosecutorial testimony can be “unhelpful” at that stage, particularly when information is readily available elsewhere to assist in making such an assessment.

For example, a prosecutor may have information on a defendant’s feelings of remorse or willingness to accept responsibility, but this information also would be available through other means, such as post-arrest statements or trial testimony.

Cassidy noted that 14 states now allow the prosecutor to submit written materials, but not to testify personally. Many states have already begun enacting further limits on prosecutorial engagement in parole proceedings. Texas and Wyoming, for instance, allow written testimony from the prosecutor only if requested by the parole board.

“Requiring the prosecutor to seek permission to intervene is a step in the right direction that could act as a prophylactic against reflexive prosecutorial opposition at release hearings,” Cassidy wrote.

“It will require the prosecutor to think carefully about what unique contribution she can make to a parole proceeding that is consistent with her obligation as a minister of justice.”

The complete article is available here.

This summary was prepared by TCR news intern Lauren Sonnenberg. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Safety and Justice Challenge Expands to 12 New Cities

Citing “significant progress and growing interest in criminal justice reform,” the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC) has announced it is giving an addition $22 million in grants to cities and countries for projects aimed at reducing jail incarceration.

Citing “significant progress and growing interest in criminal justice reform,” the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC) Innovation Fund has announced it is giving an addition $22 million in grants to cities and countries for projects aimed at reducing jail incarceration.

The program, described as a a “national initiative to reduce over-incarceration by changing the way America thinks about and uses jails, ” has provided over $148 million to support  projects in 52 cities and counties across 32 states  since 2015.

The new funds will go to 12 new cities and countries, as well as 13 sites that have already received funds, the Foundation said.

Under the program, local leaders commit to working with a broad group of stakeholders, ranging from elected officials, health providers, and law enforcement to formerly incarcerated residents, to address over-incarceration, address racial and ethnic disparities, and make local systems more just and equitable.

The foundation says significant improvements have already occurred as a result of the program, citing for example a 36 percent decrease in Philadelphia’s jail population  through an increase in diversion programs for drug-related offenders and new, early bail review processes.

Similar efforts have cut the the jail population in Cook County, Il.(which includes Chicago) by 26 percent, the Foundation said.

“There is growing demand for criminal justice reform across the country, and local jurisdictions are leading the way,” said Laurie Garduque, MacArthur’s Director of Justice Reform, in a statement accompanying the announcement.

“MacArthur is increasing our investment because we are seeing promising results and an appetite for more reform as evidenced by the diversity and creativity of the solutions implemented and tested across the Network.”

The 12 new jurisdictions chosen to receive grants up to $50,000 are:

  • Baltimore City, MD
  • Bernalillo County, NM
  • Camden County, NJ
  • Cumberland County, ME
  • Franklin County, OH
  • Gwinnett County, GA
  • Hennepin County, MN
  • City of Long Beach, CA
  • Norfolk County, MA
  • Sangamon County, IL
  • City of St. Louis, MO
  • Tuksa County, OK

Their innovations will range in focus from crisis intervention to behavioral health to pretrial release and supervision — ranging from partnerships with local domestic violence centers for justice-involved women to establishing a Community Crisis Center to divert adults with mental illness from jail to treatment and services.

Editor’s Note: The Center on Media, crime and Justice at John Jay, publisher of The Crime Report, has received support from MacArthur and the Ford Foundation for a fellowship program aimed at helping reporters cover rural justice issues.

The journalists’ stories, which analyze some of the projects funded by the Safety and Justice Challenge, can be seen here.

To see reports

A full coy of the report can be found here.


Rural Jails and Mental Health: The Hardest Challenge

Jail officials in rural communities frequently cope with staff shortages, overcrowding and budget shortfalls—all of which make it especially difficult to meet the needs of mentally ill inmates. One official in northeast Nebraska says the problem is the worst he can remember in nearly four decades.  

“There is nothing, nothing worse than seeing someone in jail for a misdemeanor nonviolent offense who has a mental illness,” said Vicki Maca, director of criminal justice/behavioral health initiatives for a region that encompasses northeast Nebraska.

They’re not in a therapeutic, trauma-informed environment,” she added .

And staff shortages are making things worse.

As Nebraska wrestles with shortages in psychiatric providers, officials are concerned that individuals struggling with mental illness are becoming increasingly entangled in the criminal justice system, frequently winding up in county jails.

And those jails, particularly in more rural communities, face unique challenges in meeting the complex needs of mentally ill inmates, according to mental health providers, jail administrators, county officials and criminal defense attorneys.

At these jails, there is no full-time staff devoted to mental health needs, as there is in the state prison system—which, while facing its own challenges with crowding, has a mental health unit.

The restrictive jail environment isn’t conducive to individuals struggling with mental illness, officials say. Yet those individuals face greater challenges moving through their criminal proceedings—such as long waitlists at the state’s Regional Centers, which conduct court-ordered competency restorations—which lengthen their stays.

Officials worry that challenges in providing continuous care out in the community increase the likelihood that mentally ill individuals may find themselves back in jails multiple times.

At the Saunders and Washington County jails, officials believe that mental illness is playing a far larger role in inmate populations than in the past.

“I’ve been doing this for 37 years, and I don’t ever remember the number of people with mental health issues being as dramatic, or significant, as large as it is right now,” said Captain Rob Bellamy, head of corrections in Washington County.

A 2006 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 64 percent of inmates in local jails across the country had some sort of mental health problem. The Virginia-based Treatment Advocacy Center estimates that 16 percent of inmates in jails and prisons have a severe mental health illness, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

More recent, localized data on mentally ill inmates is hard to come by. But generally, rising jail populations are becoming a greater concern for area counties.

The average daily population of Dodge County inmates at the Saunders County jail, which holds inmates from Saunders, Dodge and Sarpy counties, has increased from 61 to 81 since 2012, growing to encompass more than two-thirds of the total jail population, according to Jail Administrator Brian Styskal.

Washington County, meanwhile, is constructing a new, $24.5 million justice center—complete with a 120-bed jail—to accommodate a growing population that routinely exceeds its 17-bed capacity, and requires housing inmates in other counties.

Officials attribute jail growth to a number of factors, such as changes in sentencing laws and rising drug use, which is often coupled with mental illness, especially when individuals face obstacles in receiving proper medication or treatment.

“A lot of crimes are committed are when folks that I know, because I’ve dealt with them over the years, I know they have mental health issues, and doctors and psychiatrists have told me that,” said Dodge County Attorney Oliver Glass.

“I can tell you from my experience that a lot of [mentally ill individuals’] criminal activity occurs when they are self-medicating with alcohol or illegal street drugs.”

A rising population also leads to rising costs. To house its inmates in Saunders County, Dodge County pays a baseline cost of $64.50 per inmate per day, Styskal said, and that doesn’t include additional expenses, such as medical costs, which have been rising. This past year, the county spent $346,569.58 on inmate medical costs, more than double the original budgeted amount of $140,000.

That expense has increased every year since the 2013-2014 fiscal year, when it was just below $30,000. Medical costs have increased in Washington County as well, Bellamy says.

Mental health can play a big role in driving those costs.

A 2017 suicide in the Dodge County jail accounted for $114,000 after the inmate was flown to Lincoln for emergency medical treatment.

But even more alarming than the burden on counties’ budgets is the concern that jails are not an appropriate environment for the mentally ill.

“They’re in a jail, they’re having limited contact with other people, they may or may not be on their meds, they’re not getting support from family and friends like they may need, they’re not maybe seeing the mental health people as frequently as we would all like, ”  said Maca who coordinates mental health services for Behavioral Region 6, which covers five Nebraska counties, including Dodge and Washington.

The jails also lack re-entry planning services, Maca said, which are available in the prison system or in larger jails, like in Douglas County. Those services could help line up mentally ill inmates with the resources they need out in the community to stay out of jail: counseling, substance abuse treatment, housing, vocational training and more.

Through Region 6, Washington and Saunders are currently exploring the possibility of adding those services, though there are challenges at the jail level. In prisons, release dates are based on fixed sentences that are easy to predict. For jail inmates whose cases are being processed at varying lengths, preparing such services can be more difficult, Maca said.

Both jails have access to mental health crisis intervention services, which can respond in emergency situations. But those services are provided from outside the jails by local community-based programs, such as Blue Valley Behavioral Health and Lutheran Family Services.

Managing psychotropic medications in the correctional setting is also a challenge, as the medical practitioners from Advanced Correctional work to verify that prescriptions are accurate and that medical and mental health needs are legitimate.

Area defense attorneys are often concerned about how medications are doled out, especially at the larger Saunders County jail. They grow concerned that their clients are being forced off stabilizing medication “cold turkey.”

“That kind of confinement, and that kind of treatment of them really exacerbates some of their mental illness, especially when you restrict them on their access to meds going in,” said Fremont attorney Richard Register, who also sits on the county mental health board, which determines whether mentally ill individuals should be committed to state hospitals.

Generally, getting incarcerated poses frustrations for individuals who are on medications, especially if those medications have withdrawal symptoms, said Lindsay Kroll, Crisis Response Supervisor at Lutheran Family Services in Omaha.

Even in the period of time it takes to verify prescriptions, those symptoms can begin to manifest, she said.

Jail administrators, meanwhile, have to ensure that they are meeting inmates’ medical and medicinal needs while guarding against the potential that medications may be abused. With substance abuse becoming increasingly prevalent, jails need to ensure that prescriptions are legitimate, that needs are real and that inmates struggling with addiction aren’t seeking to compensate for lack of access to street drugs, Styskal argued.


“It makes it a problem for our contract medical provider where, their license is on the line for whatever they prescribe, so they have to be definitely cautious and make sure there is a medical need versus a medical want,” Styskal said.

And often, at the request of attorneys, judges will intervene, signing orders compelling the jails to prescribe those medications, Styskal said, though he believes that those decisions are often made without considering the full history of the inmate and the possibility that they may seek to abuse those medications.

Additionally, inmates with mental health issues often spend longer times in jails than other inmates. Among other contributing factors here in Nebraska is the lack of available inpatient beds at the state Regional Centers—inpatient psychiatric institutions that also provide court-ordered competency evaluations and restorations, when a defendant appears incompetent to stand trial.

Meanwhile, wait times for admissions at the still fully operational Lincoln Regional Center have increased. Mentally ill defendants ordered to receive competency evaluations can be put on long waitlists, awaiting court-ordered resources that must occur before their case can proceed.

The average wait time for a bed at the Regional Center in 2018, through Sept. 30, is 85 days—more than double what it was in 2014. Dodge County inmates have waited for anywhere between 30 to 100 days, said County Attorney Glass. In Washington County this year, one inmate spent more than 10 months waiting for a competency evaluation.

“That’s frustrating from the jail and the jail administrators’ perspective because apparently, the system recognizes that he has a problem that needs to be treated, but yet he continues to be warehoused in a jail because there’s, obviously and apparently, there’s nowhere else for them to go,” Bellamy said.

The Regional Center conducts competency evaluations both inpatient and outpatient, according to the state’s Department of Health and Human Services. The number of those evaluations are up: in 2018, through Sept. 30, there were 223 competency evaluations compared to 138 in 2016. Most of those were conducted in an outpatient setting.

But the higher number of calls means more individuals found to be incompetent to stand trial, which puts them on the waitlist for an inpatient bed for competency restoration, which can only be conducted at the Lincoln Regional Center, DHHS said.

Still, officials and attorneys say that the biggest frustration is the barriers to care outside of jail, like expensive medication or a shortage in psychiatrists. And for those who face those barriers, the criminal justice system may be their first exposure to treatment. Fremont-based attorney Leta Fornoff has seen that firsthand.

“I can say that there have been people that I have represented before that have wished to be incarcerated so that they can get the help they need,” Fornoff said.

“Now that’s few and far between, but it has happened.”

James Farrell is a John Jay Rural Justice Reporting Fellow. This is an edited version of a story published this weekend in the Fremont Tribune, first in a two-part series exploring the intersection of mental health and the local criminal justice system. The full version is available here.