Hawaii judges map out efforts to steer mentally ill to treatment instead of jail

Hawaii judges map out efforts to steer mentally ill to treatment instead of jail
Judges are being urged to help in efforts to offer treatment and not jail time to mentally ill, non-violent offenders. (Source: Hawaii News Now)

HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Nearly half of all inmates suffer from some kind of mental illness, according to the Justice Department.

In Hawaii, most won’t get treatment behind bars. And once they’re released, there’s a good chance they’ll be locked up again.

Statistics show people with mental illness are 10 times more likely to be put in jail than get treatment.

Hawaii judges say the reason those people are getting locked up is because resources that can actually help just aren’t there.

“What’s happened over the last decade is our criminal justice system has become the first responders to mental illness,” said Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald.

"We have to find ways to get people better so they’re not going to keep coming back into the system.

On Wednesday, Recktenwald called on his colleagues to change how the courts handle cases involving non-violent offenders who are mentally ill.

He wants to keep them out of jail and divert them directly into treatment.

Here’s how things work now: Detainees often end up doing hard time for petty crimes while the court works to get them stabilized. Once they’re released, though, many fall back into their psychosis.

“Sadly, I don’t think there’s a more failed public policy in America than our treatment towards people with mental illness,” said Judge Steven Leifman.

Leifman was the catalyst for change in Miami-Dade County, where its officers are trained to identify people who are mentally ill.

Instead of taking them to lock-up, officers transport them to care. The jails have a similar program.

“The number of arrests in Miami-Dade went from 118,000 a year to 53,000 a year, and enabled us to close one of our three main jails," Leifman said.

With an extreme lack of mental health resources on every island in the state, adding what’s needed in terms of psychiatric care won’t come cheap.

Nevertheless, Gov. David Ige seemed supportive of the idea.

“Doing it right can save us money in the long run," he said.

Copyright 2019 Hawaii News Now. All rights reserved.