Cleveland County launches effort to reduce number of mentally ill inmates in jail
NORMAN — The Cleveland County sheriff's office is launching an effort that county officials hope will keep people with mental health disorders out of jail.
The county recently signed on to the Stepping Up Initiative, a national campaign that seeks to reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in county jails.
Cleveland County Sheriff Todd Gibson said he hopes to use the initiative to help the county build relationships with mental health treatment providers and update its services with an eye toward helping inmates with mental illnesses reach the point that they can succeed outside of jail.
Cleveland County is the third county in the state to sign on to the initiative, after Tulsa and Grant counties.
Rise Haneberg, deputy director of the Council on State Governments Justice Center's behavioral health division, which runs the jails initiative, said the organization has been in talks with Oklahoma County Commissioner Carrie Blumert about the possibility of that county also joining the effort.
When counties sign on to the program, the council advises officials on how to implement changes, how best to deal with mentally ill inmates once they're released from jail and how to keep them out of jail to begin with, Haneberg said.
The council also connects county government officials with their counterparts in counties that have already adopted mental health plans, she said. Those officials can often offer advice about where their counties saw success and what they could have done better.
Gibson said people suffering from mental health disorders often end up in the county jail not because they're dangerous, but because there's no other resource for them. Housing those people in the jail is generally a safer option than turning them out onto the street with nowhere to go, but it isn't ideal, the sheriff said.
“As sheriff, I don’t want anybody in the jail that doesn’t need to be," he said.
The first step is to survey jail inmates to determine what percentage of the jail's population suffers from mental health disorders and find out what diagnoses are most common, Gibson said. Officials will use information gathered during the survey to determine what policy changes are needed and where the department should direct its efforts.
In the longer term, Gibson would like to see the sheriff's office work with county judges to build a more robust mental health court. Such courts work with defendants who have diagnosed mental illnesses to keep them out of jail and connect them with treatment.
A disproportionate number of inmates in county jails have mental health diagnoses, said Haneberg. Nationwide, about 17 percent of county jail inmates have mental illnesses, she said. About 4 percent of the general population has such diagnoses.
Those numbers can vary drastically from one county to the next, she said, so it's important that county jails screen incoming inmates for mental health issues.