New federal legislation would provide grants to help counties and states establish and expand mental health services for people in the legal system or who have been incarcerated.
Lawrence-area county and mental health officials said the grant program may be beneficial, but that they already worked to help provide mental health services.
"We're pretty fortunate in Douglas County," said Dave Johnson, executive director of Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center. "We work very closely with the sheriff's office and have people going to the jail every day either to screen people or provide services."
Late last month, President Bush signed into law the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act. Officials with the National Organization for Counties said the law should improve access to mental health services for nonviolent adult and juvenile offenders.
The legislation establishes a $50 million federal grant program for counties and states to help create and expand mental health services including mental health courts, increased access to mental health treatment while incarcerated and upon re-entry into the community, and resources for pre-trial jail diversion.
County officials said last week they weren't familiar with the new program, but had concerns.
Commissioner Bob Johnson said the program may be a good one, but he's not enamored with the idea of grant funding.
"There's always that chance that they will take the funding away or it's not renewed," he said. "And then you may have data showing it works, but the funding is gone and the program has to be cut and you're the bad guy."
Sheriff-elect Ken McGovern, who is in charge of the jail, said jail staff were looking into the act as well as other federal programs that could help with offenders who may be suffering from mental illness.
But any new funds probably would go to improving and expanding the programs the county has worked on with staff from the Bert Nash Mental Health Center, McGovern said.
"We know you never can totally count on a grant," he said. "You use it to get things jump-started. But it's the kind of stuff we look at to try to bolster ourselves so you know that in two years or five years it could continue."
Dave Johnson said the mental health needs of inmates was a problematic situation, but he said he thought state penitentiaries might have more critical needs than county jails. He said the Association of Community Mental Health Centers of Kansas was in conversations with the Kansas Department of Corrections about the matter.
Corrections officials didn't immediately return calls last week.
In the meantime, Dave Johnson said part of the state mental health organization's lobbying platform for the 2005 legislative session was for flexibility with Medicaid services for people incarcerated.
When people using Medicaid are incarcerated, their benefits end. It takes time for the services to be reinstated after they are released, he said.
"We're asking the benefits be suspended rather than terminated," Dave Johnson said. "Having the benefits terminated can cause a lot of problems and difficulty for a person, especially when they are released. If a person is covered by Medicaid, they likely are not going to have any other source of payment."