Sedgwick County officials are drawing attention to the number of convicted felons who are serving their sentences in county jails rather than being transferred to state correctional facilities. Because the state doesn’t reimburse county jails for that service, the cost of housing those inmates is shifted from the state to the counties.
Officials in Sedgwick County told the Wichita Eagle that their jail currently is housing about 175 state felons at a cost of about $11,500 per day. Douglas County Undersheriff Kenneth Massey said the Douglas County Jail doesn’t maintain similar figures, but if housing state felons is a problem here, it at least isn’t a growing problem because the jail population has remained relatively steady in the last couple of years.
What may be of more concern to Massey and to County Administrator Craig Weinaug is the number of jail inmates who suffer from some level of mental illness. They estimate that about half of the jail’s inmates have some mental health issue. Massey said that a review conducted last month indicated that about 15 percent of inmates have severe mental illness; 60 percent of the jail’s pharmaceutical bill is for psychotropic drugs.
“It’s a huge expense,” he said.
Beyond the expense, is the human issue of these people being housed in jail rather than in a setting that could better handle their mental health challenges. It seems likely that the 15 percent of the local jail population with severe mental illness would be better off in some kind of residential treatment facility, but because of the state’s drive to cut expenses, many of the facilities that could have provided that treatment have been closed.
Local jail officials and the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center have worked hard to serve this population and probably provide much better, more professional, service for inmates with mental illness than is available in many Kansas communities. The problem is not unique. “Dealing with mentally ill inmates is a crisis for every correctional facility in Kansas, if not the nation,” Massey said.
Kansas officials should draw no comfort from the fact that other states share this problem. At either the state or local level, taxpayers are footing the bill to house mentally ill people in jails rather than using that money to provide facilities and services that could better deal with their challenges. Both taxpayers and the inmates struggling with mental illness deserve better.