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County lockups are doing a better job caring for inmates with mental illness

With fewer treatment centers for the mentally ill, people in need of crucial psychological help may instead find themselves in jail if they brush up against the law.

It can be a harrowing experience made worse when dealing with staffs lacking the training to deal with mental problems.

The lack of treatment options is a chronic problem around the country, and New York State is not as bad as others. Still, the growing problem of mentally ill inmates crowding jails and prisons is reason enough for the governor to carefully consider further consolidation of mental health facilities.

The Erie County Holding Center is but one example of jail-turned-treatment facility. Past accounts, outlined in a 2013 Buffalo News series by staff reporter Matthew Spina, were deeply troubling, drawing much-deserved scrutiny.

The Holding Center has made progress, thanks to a sweeping overhaul that was formulated to settle a U.S. Justice Department lawsuit “seeking more humane conditions,” according to reports by an outside consultant. A recent News article by Spina, who has followed the issue closely, indicates some change but a long way yet to go.

An outside consultant, Dr. Jeffrey Metzner of Denver, found that the county is “substantially complying” with a number of goals, but with others yet to be met.

The consultant found some treatment plans too generic, and a committee formed to foster guidelines on the use of psychotropic drugs has been meeting much too infrequently.

The problem is sizable. One of Metzner’s reports showed that 248 inmates at the Holding Center received mental health treatment each month during the first five months of 2012. Since then the number of Holding Center arrivals referred to mental health workers has increased.

Metzner gave credit to leaders of the county’s Jail Management Division, the county Department of Mental Health and the University at Buffalo’s Department of Psychiatry for moving forward, and there is nothing wrong with recognizing their accomplishments. The Holding Center’s suicide rate has improved from rock bottom in the state, a sign of progress. However, that still leaves miles to go.

The remaining shortcomings don’t take away from the fact that Erie County has come a long way since the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division sued the county in 2009. Back then, Chris Collins, now a member of Congress, was county executive and he showed a determined reluctance to comply with federal guidelines. He gave in two years later with promises of a better-trained staff and improved practices, particularly when it comes to preventing suicides.

The small steps forward are known by the public only because the New York Civil Liberties Union worked to get the reports released. The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals properly agreed that the reports were of “significant public interest” and should be open to that very public. Given that taxpayers cover the cost of consultants and confinement, the release of such reports should be routine.

As an NYCLU attorney said, the county should explore ways to help people suffering from mental illness and keep them “away from the criminal justice system and into effective treatment programs.”