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Alpena criminal justice system struggles with lack of resources for those with mental illness

News Photo by Julie Riddle The sign outside Northeast Michigan Community Mental Health.

ALPENA — Mental illness is not a crime.

A glimpse inside the Alpena County Jail, where two of every five inmates have a diagnosed mental illness, may make it appear otherwise.

People aren’t locked up because they are mentally ill, but, when the effects of mental illness lead to criminal or dangerous behavior, police and courts are faced with few options except incarceration, officials say.

Mental health care providers don’t have enough beds or doctors to make inpatient care a viable alternative to jail. Police don’t have enough places to take people in mental crisis, so sometimes those people wind up behind bars.

Many people with serious mental illness never come into contact with the criminal justice system. But, for those who do, officials are at a loss as to how to make things better.

News Photo by Julie Riddle Barbed wire surrounds cells at the Alpena County Jail, where 40% of inmates have a diagnosed mental illness.

“I just don’t know,” said Alpena County Jail Administrator Scott Gagnon. “It’s tougher than calculus.”

THE BEST WE CAN OFFER

At any given time, about 40% of Alpena County Jail inmates require medication to control their behavior, according to Gagnon.

Some are able to live in the general jail population, although their differences — subdued but not eliminated by medication — mean they are picked on by other inmates, he said.

Others, either as protection from other inmates or because they are dangerous to themselves or others, have to be separated into solitary cells.

Isolation under glaring, 24-hour-a-day light only makes the effects of mental illness worse, Gagnon said.

But it’s the best he can offer.

Local police and mental health professionals acknowledge that incarceration and mental illness are a bad match, the effects of one rarely having positive effects on the other.

Alpena is one of few northern Michigan communities to offer inpatient mental health care. However, beds at MidMichigan Medical Center-Alpena’s behavioral health center are often full, and other facilities around the state often have weeks-long waiting lists.

Rural areas like Northeast Michigan struggle to recruit mental health professionals, said Amy Pilarski, project coordinator for Northeast Michigan Community Mental Health.

Fewer doctors and counselors means fewer chances to catch a mental instability before it leads to dangerous or criminal behavior, and less ability to provide mental health help for those already behind bars, she said.

Still, she thinks Alpena has upped its efforts to keep those with mental illness out of jail, with attorneys, judges, and police reaching out regularly for her expertise.

A jail diversion program run by Community Mental Health is intended to allow some people with mental illness who are accused of a crime to stay out of jail while they’re going through the court system.

If they fit the criteria of the program and are approved by the prosecutor, they are kept in the community and helped through mental health treatment.

Only a handful of people, sometimes as few as one a year, qualify for the program, however.

Having mental illness doesn’t make someone a criminal. It also isn’t an excuse for crime, Pilarski said.

An interactive graphic on criminal justice and mental health. Story continues below graphic.

POLICE NOT COUNSELORS

Police officers aren’t mental health counselors.

Still, they are daily asked to intervene in mental health crises, which could mean anything from violent outbursts to alien-conspiracy-theory mania — crises for which police get only limited training, Alpena County Sheriff Steven Kieliszewski said.

If a crime has been committed, officers can choose to make an arrest or take someone to the hospital for a mental health evaluation.

Other times, though, the person in crisis isn’t altered enough to go to the hospital, doesn’t qualify for services through Community Mental Health, and hasn’t committed a crime.

Police are left with no options but to calm the situation and then leave, frustrated they have little more to offer, Kieliszewski said.

It’s not an officer’s job to decide whether mental illness played a role in a crime, according to Lt. John Grimshaw, commander of the Michigan State Police-Alpena Post.

It’s up to the court to decide if the person arrested ought to be charged as a criminal or provided treatment, he said.

Once police bring her evidence of a crime, Alpena County Prosecutor Cynthia Muszynski said she’d never recommend treatment instead of charging the crime.

Filing criminal charges is a prosecutor’s only tool for connecting people who have committed a crime to mental health services, Muszynski said.

Michigan doesn’t have enough inpatient facilities to treat everyone who has mental illness, so people with significant mental illness often remain a part of their own communities.

“Which is great, if their mental illness is not one in which they tend to commit crime,” Muszynski said.

Criminal charges don’t always mean incarceration, and 88th District Court Judge Thomas LaCross said he regularly sentences mentally ill people to treatment instead of jail.

Violent offenders, though, should more likely be behind bars, he said.

Years ago, the county considered forming a mental health court, similar to the drug court that allows people at high risk of reoffending to complete an aggressive program of probation, therapy, and court meetings in lieu of incarceration.

At the time, the way police and the courts handled mental illness was deemed good enough.

It may be time to revisit the idea, LaCross said.

A COMMUNITY ISSUE

To keep jails from being used as makeshift mental health clinics, Alpena County needs to treat mental illness as a community issue, said Milton Mack, a former state court administrator who in September was appointed to a national mental health task force.

Many Michigan communities are full of people trying to keep mentally ill people out of the criminal justice system, but lack of coordination stalls their efforts, Mack said.

In counties where he sees improvement, judges routinely order mental health treatment such as medication and therapy instead of jail, hospitals know where to connect patients for help upon discharge, and police know what steps to take when confronted by someone with mental illness.

That’s why Kieliszewski is trying to organize a crisis intervention team in Alpena County, the sheriff said.

Such a team would use the aggregate skills of police, social workers, and mental health providers to respond to a mental health crisis, offering on-the-spot trained help and connecting families to services.

A crisis intervention team is a promising idea for Alpena, but it won’t work unless the team has solutions to offer families besides courts and jail cells, he said.

Crime associated with mental illness will never entirely go away, said Pilarski, of Community Mental Health.

Education and understanding would go a long way to handling it more appropriately, however, she said.

Alpena resident Erin Kieliszewski, after struggling to get help for a young family member with mental illness, has spent several years trying to start a local chapter of National Alliance on Mental Illness, an advocacy group that offers training and resources for families of those with mental illness.

Erin Kieliezewski is the wife of Sheriff Steven Kieliszewski.

People need to know what to do when their loved one is arrested, and they need to know how to find resources to keep that from happening — help the chapter will be able to provide, Erin Kieliszewski said.

“It’s going to let them know they’re not alone,” she said. “And that there’s hope.”

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, jriddle@thealpenanews.com or on Twitter @jriddleX.

COMING MONDAY

Check out Monday’s edition to read the story of David Hainsworth’s experience with mental illness and the criminal justice system.

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