Dauphin County rolls out plan to reform criminal justice system for mentally ill


Closures of state hospitals and limited funding for treatment services has put stress on jail systems across the country, and Dauphin County is no exception. 

In 2016, 44 percent of the county’s mentally ill inmates returned to prison within a year of their initial booking. 

Officials say now, it’s time to make a change. 

“Dauphin County is actually at the forefront of this. We found that many counties around the country struggled to just identify how many people with mental illnesses are in their system, and they’re trying to get this data to develop a systematic plan,” said Will Engelhardt, project manager, Council of State Government Justice Center

That plan involves eight recommendations designed to keep low-level, mentally ill offenders out of incarceration and into treatment. 

“With this information, knowing that people with mental illnesses are staying too long in their jail take some course of action against pretrial responses and such, knowing that too many people are being arrested, you can think about how law enforcement is responding to people with mental illnesses,” Engelhardt said. 

Commissioners want to be clear — the reforms call for being smarter, not softer on crime. 

“We’ve seen a reduction in taxpayer contributions, but we’ve also seen a reduction in crime,” said George HartwIck, Dauphin County Commissioner. 

Hartwick hopes Pennsylvania and the rest of the country follow suit because without higher-level change, men and women will remain prisoners to their illnesses. 

“We need to think better about how we connect them to services in an earlier stage so they’re not spending tax-payer money, putting the time in jail where they’re de-compensating and not getting any better, and we can figure out better ways for them to become taxpaying citizens and productive family members,” Hartwick said. 

Officials said it’s likely that these statistics are a lot higher. The inmates who are considered having serious mental illnesses are only people who received treatment from Dauphin County facilities. 

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