U.S. jail admissions reach 11 million annually, and the number of people in county jails is now at four times the size of the 1970 jail population. Much of this growth has been driven by small and mid-sized counties, which now make up more than 75 percent of the U.S. jail population. Jails across the nation serve an estimated 2 million people with serious mental illnesses each year – almost three-quarters of whom also have substance use disorders. The prevalence of people with serious mental illnesses in jails is three to six times higher than for the general population. Once incarcerated, these individuals tend to stay longer in jail and upon release are at a higher risk of returning than those without these illnesses.
The human toll – and its cost to taxpayers – is staggering. Jails spend two to three times more on adults with mental illnesses that require intervention than on people without those needs, yet often do not see improvements in recidivism or recovery. Despite counties’ tremendous efforts to address this problem, they are often thwarted by significant obstacles, such as coordinating multiple systems and operating with minimal resources. Without change, large numbers of people with mental illnesses will continue to cycle through the criminal justice system, often resulting in missed opportunities to link them to treatment, tragic outcomes, inefficient use of funding and failure to improve public safety.
Despite their small populations, rural counties face some of the same challenges as urban counties. Rural counties have residents with mental illnesses, they lack enough resources to provide quality services and they face the same legal and policy barriers to implementing new programs and practices as their more populous counterparts. But in some ways, rural counties struggle even more: access to community services, providing jail mental health services, providing housing for residents with mental illnesses.
The goal of this publication is to provide rural county leaders with ideas and strategies for addressing these challenges by providing examples of counties that have successfully done so or are making progress. There is no one strategy that will work for all counties, or all rural counties. But county leaders are encouraged to learn from each other’s experiences and adapt their peers’ policies, practices and programs to fit the needs of their county and residents.
Population of focus: Rural county leaders
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Organization: National Association of Counties