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County jails straddle the intersection of health and justice

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County jails are increasingly at the center of attention when it comes to discussing the delivery of health services, especially for mental health and the treatment of mental illness.

The county jail inmate popula­tion is more likely to have a mental illness or a medical condition than the general population, according to research by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).

Meeting the needs of this popula­tion requires county jails to involve health professionals and treatment providers even as they seek ways to improve how they address mental illness and medical conditions.

NACo recently released a new research brief that discusses the health care needs of the jail popula­tion and how counties address them. Using the results from a 2015 NACo survey, the research brief pinpoints the challenges that confront county jails in their efforts to address mental illnesses and medical conditions.

In addition to the research brief, NACo also released four case stud­ies that highlight the practices and solutions county jails have designed to address the health circumstances of the inmate population.

Many county jail inmates have a medical condition. BJS estimates that 40 percent of inmates have a chronic medical condition. These conditions include high blood pressure, asthma and diabetes. Ad­ditionally, a majority of jail inmates are overweight or obese, which puts their physical health at risk.

On the mental health side, BJS research indicates that more than 60 percent of the jail population has a mental illness. Many jail inmates with a mental illness also abuse drugs.

With a large part of the jail inmate population having health issues, inmate health care is a cost driver for counties. BJS indicates that many jail inmates with a chronic condition take prescription medication. While medication can help control symptoms associated with health conditions, providing these medications adds to inmate health care costs.

To better meet inmates’ health care needs, county jails provide inmates with treatment and other needed services within and outside the jail.

A limited number of county jails have programs that release and allow inmates with behavioral health or medical problems to be supervised in the community instead of the jail to receive treatment.

County jails are looking for ways to improve health outcomes for the jail population. Through a partnership with TASC (Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities), a local organization that specializes in working with the jail population, Cook County, Ill. assists jail inmates with enrolling in Medicaid. Having Medicaid makes it easier for inmates to access health care providers once released. TASC helps released inmates with finding doctors and pharmacies to pick up prescription medication.

Meeting the immediate and long-term health needs of those with behavioral health or medical condi­tions who come into contact with the county jail requires collaboration — between the county justice system, county health system and other community based organizations. Collaboration and coordination is es­sential to the success of any approach designed to address the intersection of health and the criminal justice system.

To read NACo’s new research brief and the accompanying case studies, visit: www.naco.org/jailhealthservices.

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