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Pierce County Jail makes a poor psychiatric hospital

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Aug. 13, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
August 13, 2012 6:03 pm

This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.

Treating the mentally ill on the cheap can cost a fortune. The shocking overtime costs at Pierce County Jail are yet another example.

Those costs are expected to run $1.8 million over budget this year. Some of that may be a result of sloppy management – without an in depth analysis, there’s no way to tell.

But there’s no question that some of it is being driven, as Sheriff Paul Pastor maintains, by the high cost of dealing with inmates with serious psychiatric illnesses.

According to the Sheriff’s Department, which operates the jail, roughly 118 inmates with serious mental illnesses are being confined there at any given time. Some of them are housed in a section of the building that’s been turned into what amounts to a psychiatric wing. Others are held maximum security.

An additional 150 or more don’t suffer from acute illnesses – but are sick enough to require psychiatric medications. The jail’s budget for mental health treatment, coincidentally, is $1.8 million.

The Pierce County Jail, in other words, is not just a jail: It’s also a psychiatric hospital under a different name.

This phenomenon isn’t unique to Pierce County. It is common throughout the United States, and its roots stretch back to the 1960s. That’s when the country began “deinstitutionalizing” the severely mentally ill – moving them out of psychiatric hospitals that were sometimes grim and dehumanizing.

The well-intentioned theory held that people with severe disorders would get freedom and superior treatment as outpatients in community settings.

Unfortunately, the money didn’t follow the patients. States saved big on closing hospitals but weren’t so eager to fund community care.

At the same time, the deinstitutionalization movement created high hurdles for involuntary commitment. In Washington until recently, you had to be threatening someone with imminent bodily harm before a court could order you into treatment. A week-old threat to attack someone didn’t count.

The result: Patients got the “freedom” to wander the streets, sleep under bridges and get beat up by criminals. Some who might otherwise have gotten treatment have committed crimes themselves.

This isn’t just a matter of jail overtime expenses. In some cases – especially when the illness is combined with alcohol or drug abuse – the crimes devastate the lives of others.

One psychotic man now housed in Western State Hospital, Isaac Zamora, killed six people in a murderous rampage in Skagit County four years ago. He’d been jailed previously, and his family had repeatedly pleaded to get him into treatment. Zamora should have been in Western State before he exploded.

A jail makes for a poor psychiatric hospital. It’s not rational to wait for disturbed souls to commit crimes – then lock them up and treat them in a place where they’re not likely to heal. But Washington, Pierce County and the entire country are squandering ridiculous sums of money doing just that.

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