About 40 percent of the more than 8,600 prison inmates in Iowa’s correction system have a diagnosed mental illness. Advocates for the mentally ill believe more needs to be done to make sure non-violent inmates with mental disorders receive the treatment and support they need to get out of jail and to stay out.

In central Iowa, the Polk County Board of Supervisors has agreed to begin a two-year pilot project aimed at reducing the number of people with mental illness who are serving jail time. The case manager for the Mental Health Diversion Program, Tim Larson, says most of them shouldn’t be behind bars in the first place. "A lot of people simply don’t belong there," Larson says, "and with adequate mental health services and adequate medication, they can become functioning members of society again."

The program is funded with money received by the Polk County Jail for holding federal inmates. Larson says its goals are simple. "Get them out as quick as possible, make sure they have adequate services in the community, and ultimately lessen the time in jail and hopefully keep them from coming back," Larson said. Project organizers say inmates who have committed violent crimes won’t be eligible for the program. Roughly 13 percent of Polk County’s jail population has been diagnosed with a mental illness.