Umatilla County is stepping up to reduce the number of mentally ill people in the county jail.
Commissioner George Murdock said mental illness is a major concern nationwide and Umatilla County is no different.
“We have way too many people in jail suffering from mental illness,” he said.
To help take on the problem, the county board of commissioners is adopting the Stepping Up Initiative, a national program to get county officials to work with law enforcement, judges, district attorneys and treatment providers to divert people with mental illness from jails and into treatment.
The National Association of Counties, The Council of State Governments Justice Center and the American Psychiatric Association Foundation launched the initiative in May 2015. According to stepuptogether.org, the initiative’s website, 449 counties nationwide participate with 19 in Oregon, including Sherman, Gilliam and Union counties.
Murdock said the resolution to step into Stepping Up acknowledges the mental health situation the country faces:
•Two million people with serious mental illness end up in jails each year across the nation.
•Jail populations have three to six times as many adults suffering from serious mental illness as the general population.
•Adults with mental illness who go to jail tend to have longer stays and a higher rate of re-offending than people without mental illness.
Sheriff Terry Rowan earlier this year sought $1 million from the Legislature to renovate the jail to accommodate inmates with mental health issues. The state did not fund the investment.
Under this new call to action, the county promises to take several steps to tackle the crisis, from setting up a team to address safe reduction in jail to tracking data on the mentally ill coming into jail, as well as identifying local and state policy and funding barriers to treatment and to sharing what it learns with other counties.
Rowan said he supports Stepping Up, but there may be a practical limit on its effectiveness.
“The only concern I have is resources available to the population to go to this,” he said. “That’s what we seem to have to battle against day in and day out.”
Much of what Stepping Up strives to achieve, he said, aligns with the goals of Oregon’s Justice Reinvestment Act, which provides state funding for local programs to reduce the prison population, hold offenders accountable, cut back on offenders committing new crimes and increasing the public safety. Rowan said more Oregon counties adopting the initiative could create a tipping point for state lawmakers to take notice and create a behavioral reinvestment program.
Murdock also advocates for that approach. The state in 2014 shut down the Blue Mountain Recovery Center, a psychiatric facility in Pendleton, but did not establish a new one. He said the Justice Reinvestment Act is a model that works well and it cost effective.
“If the state would make a companion mental health reinvestment initiative, I think that would make huge inroads for us,” he said.
The county commissioners vote on the Stepping Up Initiative when they meet Tuesday starting at 9 a.m. at the courthouse in Pendleton.