The headline on Thursday’s Local & State section front read, “Woman jailed after calling 911 about 150 times.” The headline might have brought a chuckle to your face. The pull out quote from a neighbor was equally funny, “She ain’t crazy. She’s the devil.”
Whatever Toshiba Smith’s problems, calling 911 is not the solution. However, too many times, the Bibb County Sheriff’s Office is called upon to deal with mental health issues that should be dealt with by other agencies better equipped to handle those problems than an institution designed to arrest and hold people against their will and under whose power Smith now finds herself.
She’s far from alone. About a third of the population at the jail at any one time are there not because they committed some heinous crime but because they got off their medication, ran out of their medication or had another event that sent them into a mental tailspin where they committed a low-level crime and were arrested.
In the 1980s, there was an effort to close many of the institutions that housed the mentally ill. The system that had been in place for decades -- rightly or wrongly -- was dismantled. Many of the people the system was designed to serve found themselves on the streets of cities all across the nation, and jails were soon the hospitals of no choice.
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A 2006 study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that, 1.26 million inmates were mentally ill, “representing 45 percent of federal offenders, 56 percent of state offenders and 64 percent of jail offenders.” Interestingly enough, in that same study, female inmates had higher rates of mental health problems than male inmates. In Chicago, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart selected Dr. Nneka Jones Tapia, a clinical psychologist, to head Cook County Jail because the sheriff said 25 percent to 35 percent of the inmates there suffered from mental illness and the numbers were going up.
In Bibb County several special accountability courts are in place to help those who need and want help and most have a mental health component: Adult Felony Drug Court, Adult Mental Health Court, Problem Solving Child Support Court and Veteran’s Treatment Court. Still there is a revolving jail cell for too many who are really too ill to function, and there aren’t enough beds, beyond the jail, to treat them.
It is one of the failings of our society, and while our state and federal governments may have saved money by closing and refocusing facilities, the costs are now borne by local taxpayers, and it’s costing us millions of dollars, not to mention the loss in human potential.