Cuts in funding for jail-alternative programs imperil justice and dignity


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In the current financial zeitgeist, every echelon of government is seeking to cut programs, but with our jails unbelievably overcrowded and the economy-inspired mental-health crisis, it is regrettable that Iowa is putting mental-health services for criminals on the chopping block.

The Iowa Legislature is proposing cutting more than $2 million from the county’s Mental Health and Disability Services Department. These cuts have the potential to bleed jail-alternative programs, such as mental-health diversion programs for inmates. While the state’s budget is still embroiled in partisan battles, Johnson County has pledged to continue funding for programs aimed at treating inmates with mental illnesses.

Far from the stereotype of the psycho killer, people with mental illness are no more likely to commit violent crimes than the rest of the population. But many people with these illnesses find themselves in jail as a result of their conditions; incarceration can further destabilize people struggling to get their lives and conditions under control.

Johnson County’s support for jail-alternative programs, which provide medical care for people who might otherwise be headed to incarceration, is laudable even as the state forsakes one of its primary duties: operating a justice system that encourages rehabilitation, not recidivism.

Sixty-four percent of inmates in county jails were found to have some sort of mental-health problem, according to a national study by the U.S. Department of Justice; in the state of Iowa, nearly 40 percent of inmates have a diagnosed illness. Jail-alternative programs reduce the number of offenders who return to jail by 63 percent. Furthermore, the average stay for an inmate who went through a jail-alternative program was 154.8 days before the programs were put in place and 58.53 days after intervention — a significant difference of 96.27 days, according to a 2010 report.

Margaret Stout, the executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness-Iowa, believes serving people who have been incarcerated is an integral part of mental-health care.

“We are always in favor of any diversion program that can be implemented to help people move from one institutional setting to another, whether it be the correctional system or the mental-health institution,” Stout told the Editorial Board Tuesday.

Johnson County spends roughly $160,000 on jail-alternative programs, helping approximately 200 people a year. While this may seem like a lot, the money funded for these programs offers inmates everything from substance-abuse counseling to literacy tutoring and job coaching. The money is divided up in three distinct ways: support for the Resource Intervention Center, support for in-house jail programs, and grants to local nonprofits.

“There is still a belief that they can gain from recovery and actually being involved in a rehab program,” Stout said. “Sometimes, if these people are kept too long, they become institutionalized, and I think it’s harder for them to move toward rehabilitation and recovery.”

Michael Flaum, a University of Iowa clinical professor of psychiatry and Consortium of Mental Health director, isn’t too worried that these programs will get cut. He says that each county is required to come up with some plan in anticipation of a shortfall in money. So if the state follows through and cuts these programs, he remains confident that Johnson County will still find other sources of funding.

“I know nobody wants to cut these programs,” Flaum said.

The Johnson County Board of Supervisors has pledged county money to fill any funding gaps created at the state level. Other counties may not be so lucky. With Iowa’s prisons more than 25 percent over capacity, and prisons facing staff layoffs at the end of this month because of a budget crunch, any method of alleviating the burden in our often unjust criminal-justice system should be welcomed and supported.

Johnson County deserves praise for acknowledging the importance of jail alternatives in driving down recidivism and overcrowding and giving those suffering the counseling and services they need; other, less well-off counties may suffer under Iowa’s willingness to jeopardize the state of mental-health services to make ends meet elsewhere.

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