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Policies aim to better address mental health, substance abuse issues in prison populations

by Katelyn Tye ~ December 2017 ~ Stateline Midwest
Minnesota Rep. Marion O’Neill first became aware of the prevalence of mental health and substance abuse disorders in the state’s prisons while serving on the Legislature’s Prison Population Task Force in 2015.
State corrections officials told the task force that 85 percent to 90 percent of inmates had a chemical dependency, 60 percent had mental health issues, and 11 percent were severely mentally ill.
“It was clear we needed to address these individuals’ underlying issues, not just the criminal behavior,” O’Neill says.
She also learned that the majority of prison admissions — 64 percent in 2016 — were people whose parole or probation was revoked due to technical violations such as missing a meeting or failing a drug test, as opposed to individuals who had committed new crimes.
This year, O’Neill sponsored legislation that requires parole and probation agents to consider community-based alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders who violate the conditions of their probation or parole.
Under the new law, before revoking an offender’s probation or parole for a technical violation, agents must identify “options to address and correct the violation,” such as inpatient substance abuse treatment.
The enacting legislation (HF 470) also funded a two-year pilot program that will provide grants to agencies that supervise offenders on probation, parole or supervised release and that help facilitate access to community treatment options.
Ohio lawmakers in 2015 began requiring the state Department of Rehabilitation and Correction to operate a community-based substance abuse treatment program for inmates serving time for nonviolent, low-level drug offenses. Under the program, inmates with fewer than 12 months left in their sentence may be transferred to serve the remainder of their time in a halfway house, reentry facility, or residential center where they can receive substance abuse treatment.
Additionally, Ohio’s new state budget doubled spending on addiction-recovery services in prisons and shifted the administration of those services from the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction to the Ohio Department of Mental Health & Addiction Services.
“There’s wide recognition, both for drug addiction and for mental health issues, that we can always use more resources on the front end, during incarceration and post-release,” Ohio Sen. John Eklund says.
Eklund notes, too, that his state’s criminal justice policy should reflect the impacts that behavioral health issues and the state’s current opioid crisis are having: “As the nature of the population that touches the criminal justice system changes, then the system must change as well.”
During a session in November at The CSG Justice Center’s 50-State Summit on Public Safety, experts discussed policies to address behavioral health and substance abuse disorders in state correctional populations. Dr. Fred Osher, director of health systems and services policy at The CSG Justice Center, recommended that states focus on:


Article written by Katelyn Tye, staff liaison to the Midwestern Legislative Conference Criminal Justice & Public Safety Committee.