A Mental Health Template for American Jails - Cook County Sheriff

Sheriffs and Jail Directors 7-20-16

Please find a link to a mental health template for jails and prisons, produced for your consideration by Cook County (IL) Sheriff Tom Dart: http://cookcountysheriff.org/MentalHealthTemplate.html

As we all come to terms with America's mental health crisis and the heavy burden placed on law enforcement, Sheriff Dart has directed his staff to serve as a resource to you and your teams in search of ideas and best practices. It is Sheriff Dart's hope that this template and the accompanying video - based on his experience implementing mental health reforms in Chicago's Cook County Jail - will be of benefit to Sheriff's Offices and jails both big and small.Please feel free to engage Sheriff Dart's staff with any questions, ideas or feedback.Cook County Sheriff's Office

 A NOTE FROM SHERIFF THOMAS J. DART Dear Sheriff or Jail Director,As I've traveled the country in recent years raising awareness of the root causes and potential solutions to the criminalization of mental illness, I've had the good fortune of meeting many of my counterparts within sheriff's offices big and small. We all come to these positions from a diverse array of backgrounds - many are police officers; some are lifelong corrections officials; others (like me) are former prosecutors.

One quality unites us all - absolutely none of us signed up to run the largest mental health institutions in our respective communities.Yet that is where we find ourselves. As we know all too well, jails and prisons now serve as the largest mental health providers in 44 of the 50 states. Through benign neglect and disastrous public policies, state and local governments have apparently decided over the past few decades that it is perfectly acceptable for our jails to serve as warehouses for the mentally ill.  Most national media attention has focused on jails that house incredibly large mentally ill populations like Rikers, L.A. County Jail and Cook County Jail (which I oversee), yet studies have shown that individuals with mental illness are responsible for the explosive incarceration rates occurring in smaller counties and jails. Every one of us is on the front lines of this crisis.

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And while we as sheriffs have firsthand experience of the shameful and fiscally irresponsible consequences of the criminalization of mental illness, we've traditionally had no say or discretion in the matter. We must take all of the defendants remanded to our custody by other stakeholders in the criminal justice system, even if everyone would be better served by diverting some of those defendants to treatment instead of jail.

I came to my breaking point on this issue several years ago. I grew tired of the runaround and empty promises from elected officials who continued to senselessly slash mental health budgets with no regard to the long-term effects on our criminal justice systems. So I decided to do something about it, in my capacity as a sheriff and advocate. I began inviting outside-the-box ideas from my staff and experts throughout the country, tweaking and implementing as I saw fit. Quite frankly, we improvised as we went along. Some ideas didn't work as planned - so we scrapped them, with no harm done. But most of these concepts resulted in immediate and demonstrable success.

Since 2013, my overall jail population has dropped about 20%, and the mentally ill inmates participating in our progressive programs are recidivating far less often into the jail. I'm saving millions of dollars in reduced overtime and operational costs, including the shutdown of several large and (now) empty buildings of Cook County Jail.

I've created this template in an effort to share what we have learned, because I know that if we can achieve such measureable progress in the largest jail in the country - with all the red tape and bureaucracy that comes with it - similar success is attainable in all American jails. The ideas outlined in the template are scalable, from small lock-ups to sprawling multi-divisional compounds. Several of these proposals do require budget on the front end, but if my experience is any indication, they will save you significantly on the back end as recidivism rates among the mentally ill population begin to decline.

Regardless of how many of these concepts are appropriate for implementation at your jail, my staff and I would be happy to help you and your corrections team with any questions or challenges you face. Please feel free to contact my staff at CCSO.MentalHealth@cookcountyil.gov at any time with questions, ideas or feedback. 

Simply put, I understand the mental health calamity that has been dropped in your lap, and I want to help as best I can. Together, we can achieve significant reform and send a strong message to our legislative counterparts that we will no longer allow our institutions to devolve into repositories for the poorest, sickest and most vulnerable among us.

Sincerely,Tom Dart, Sheriff of Cook County

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