The National Association of Counties (NACo) has called on the U.S. Attorney General to create a national commission to study and make recommendations to all levels of government on the jailing of non-violent offenders with mental illness in county jails.

NACo, the only national organization that represents county governments, believes that implementing a wide range of community-based health and human service programs would be more beneficial for those suffering from mental illness charged with non-violent offenses and less costly for county taxpayers.

NACo is recommending that the national commission carefully study the issue and make recommendations to all levels of government on how best to address the problem. At its 2006 Legislative Conference last month, NACo's Board of Directors adopted unanimously a resolution calling for the creation of a national commission.

According to U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics seminal report, "Mental Health and Treatment of Inmates and Probationers," it was estimated that 16% of local jail populations are suffering from mental illness. The study found that 70% of the mentally ill population was comprised of non-violent offenders.

"A national commission appointed by the Attorney General of the United States could focus attention on the intergovernmental aspects of the crisis as well as the pressing need for providing comprehensive care in the community," said Lisa Naito, NACo Justice and Public Safety Steering Committee Chair and Multnomah County (Ore.) Commissioner.

Robert Janes, NACo Health Steering Committee Chair and Lee County (Fla.) Commissioner believes an intergovernmental and evidence-based approach is needed to address this problem. "By keeping the mentally ill within the health and human services system, counties would be better able to monitor their condition and provide treatment, if needed," he said

Steven Leifman, Associate Administrative Judge, Miami-Dade County (Fla.) said this is an issue that desperately needs to be addressed nationally.

"This is a national tragedy and it's time to take a hard look at this issue and figure out how we can keep non-violent, mentally ill people out of our jails and provide them with the treatment they need," Leifman said. "I see this as a trans-institutional issue. People who should be in the healthcare system getting help are inappropriately being transferred into the criminal justice system. There are no winners under the current system."

Jane Haliburton, former chair of NACo's Rural Action Caucus and Story County (Iowa) supervisor, said multi-county solutions are often needed to provide competent care for the mentally ill in rural America.

"For example, there are about 2,000 counties in the United States that do not have a psychiatrist," she said. "We need to explore how neighboring counties can effectively share resources with one another." Haliburton is a member of the governor of Iowa's commission on the mentally ill.

Former NACo President Kenneth Mayfield, Dallas County (Texas) Commissioner, highlighted the issue during his presidency. He said too often, the mentally ill tend to follow a revolving door from jail to the streets and then back again to jail.

"The longer non-violent people with mental health problems are incarcerated, the more their condition will deteriorate and then they may very well become a public safety risk," Mayfield said. "Jail diversion programs can provide better treatment for the mentally ill, save counties money, and improve public safety."

Attached is the NACo Justice and Public Safety Steering Committee resolution urging the Attorney General to appoint a national commission to study and make recommendations on the jailing of the non-violent mentally ill in county jails.