Local law enforcement officials say county jails have become the largest mental health facility in many counties. Story County Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald was president of the National Sheriffs Association last year.

“Hearing the concerns of sheriffs — whether it’s Oklahoma, California, Florida or Maine — everywhere it’s the same: Mental health is a crisis,” Fitzgerald says. “But unfortunately when you’re developing county budgets, state budgets or even the federal budget, one of the first things cut is support for mental health.”

According to Fitzgerald, jail is often the worst place for someone who is mentally ill.

“The person without a mental health issue is able to navigate the system and manipulate his way through to get in and out of jail,” Fitzgerald says. “Somebody that comes in, has a mental health issue, then they are going to be prone to outbursts, non-conformity with rules and they’re going to be in the county jails much longer — at a much higher cost to your local taxdollars, so it only makes sense to divert taxdollars into programs that help.”

Iowa State University, Ames Police and Story County are pooling resources, with a mental health professional on staff who evaluates people who’re being booked into jail. If the person’s being charged with a non-violent offense and has a history of mental health issues, that counselor will track the person up to 18 months after they’re released from jail to ensure they’re taking medications, going to their job and aren’t getting into a situation that will land them back in jail.

“Mental health is expensive,” Fitzgerald says. “It’s not cheap, but in today’s society we have an obligation to those people who need our help.”

Fitzgerald testified today before the Iowa Senate Judiciary Committee, as the panel seeks to address the “intersection between public safety and mental health.” Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson told the panel he has a “jail diversion coordinator” who assesses inmates who may be suffering from mental health problems — and who could be released from jail to get treatment.

“I’m just starting my second term. If you’d have told me four years ago that I would be able to cite chapter and verse of the mental health code I would have giggled at you because my job is to catch bad guys,” Thompson said, “but that’s kind of where we’re at today.”

A captain from the Polk County Sheriff’s Department said his department has a coordinator who serves the entire Des Moines metro area to evaluate people who may be arrested, but who could, instead, be taken in for mental health treatment. All three law enforcement officials stressed such efforts suffer from a lack funding, prompting one senator to say it sounds like the state’s mental health care system “needs some work” because “using county jails as our primary mental health treatment facility is expensive, ineffective and dangerous.”