Sunday, February 06, 2005


The Indianapolis Star
August 17, 2003

Case spurs mental health debate; People often imprisoned when treatment
is best option, some say


Donna L. Walker says she is mentally ill. Law enforcement officials say she's a con artist who committed a cruel hoax on a Thorntown family, claiming to be the daughter who disappeared in 1986.

Advocates say Walker needs help. Law officers want her to go to jail.

If they prevail and Walker, 35, is convicted of felony identity deception, she could find herself in an Indiana corrections system that is still struggling to find ways to handle the mentally ill.

Of the 21,000 adults in state prisons, 14 percent, or about 2,900, have some form of mental illness, according to the Indiana Department of Correction.

Mental health advocates say many of those would be better served -- at lower cost -- in other settings.

"We've always inappropriately incarcerated people with mental illness or an addictive disorder because we didn't know how to deal with them," said Stephen McCaffrey, president and chief executive officer of the Mental Health Association in Indiana. "It (jail) was the only option."

Advocates say the state has made some progress in the past decade in improving the way the criminal justice system treats the mentally ill. But there's still work to be done -- and little money available to pay for it.

"We (still) have more people in DOC with mental illness than we have in state mental hospitals," McCaffrey noted.

Mike Kempf, a member of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, says the state is trying to improve the situation.

He notes that police departments in Fort Wayne and Indianapolis have trained officers to recognize signs of mental illness. The approach emphasizes getting people help instead of taking them to jail.

In addition, Marion County has the Pair Mental Health Diversion Program. It allows mentally ill people facing misdemeanor and some nonviolent felony charges to receive treatment as an alternative to incarceration.

The program was created after the Marion County Mental Health Association brought together a number of groups to share concerns about the number of mentally ill people in jail in 1995.

"These people didn't really need to be in jail," said Marjorie Towell, executive director of the association. "What they needed was to be in treatment."

Under the Pair program, those who are mentally ill and convicted of a qualifying crime receive treatment and counseling for a year. Staff members from the mental health association monitor the person's progress and submit reports to the court.

If the person fulfills the requirements, the criminal case is dismissed.

Since 1996, 497 people have gone through the program and 73 percent have successfully completed it, officials said.

But there are more people eligible than the program can accommodate, Towell noted. The program does not receive public funding and relies on volunteers.

During the last legislative session, state Sen. Connie Lawson, R-Danville, introduced a bill that would set up a similar program for those charged with nonviolent crimes. Under the program, adults with mental or addictive disorders would receive treatment instead of incarceration.

The bill didn't receive a hearing, but a similar provision was included in the budget bill that was signed into law.

But there's no money to pay for the program, because the state is facing an $800 million deficit.

Mental health officials acknowledge the state is in a financial bind. But they say it is less expensive to treat the mentally ill than to jail them. The Department of Correction estimates it spends $20,965 a year per adult prisoner. That amounts to more than $60 million spent each year on mentally ill inmates.

"There is a large percentage of detainees in the prison system who are there because they are mentally ill," said Lawson, who also is chairwoman of the state's Mental Health Commission. "It doesn't make sense."

Robert Ohlemiller, a deputy commissioner for the Department of Correction, agrees.

"There is no good reason for having a mentally ill person in jail or prison if they don't represent a serious public risk and can be managed some other place," he said.

Mark Gates is one of those people.

During an eight-year period, Gates was often homeless, battling the voices he imagined coming through the walls. Sometimes, Gates was so hungry that he chanced eating at restaurants even though he knew he couldn't pay his bill.

He was arrested 14 times from 1986 to 1994 in Los Angeles and Fort Wayne on charges of criminal conversion. Gates, who has a bipolar disorder, would spend a month or more in jail each time.

He says no one ever questioned why he kept showing up in jail. It wasn't until 1994, when he was committed to a Fort Wayne mental facility after causing disturbances in a Salvation Army program, that he finally got the psychiatric help he needed.

Gates, who now is a substitute baker in a doughnut shop, says everyone coming into the criminal justice system should be evaluated. It's not, he said, "to get out of the criminal charges that you did, just to start treatment for the mental illness so the problem can stop."


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