With studies showing that released lawbreakers with mental illness have high rates of reoffending, Lancaster County is taking a step to reduce the problem.
The county commissioners have approved a new behavioral health position to help inmates and offenders who've returned to the community get psychiatric care.
The new position is a forensic case manager. The person in that job will assess potential clients, determine eligibility for services and develop service plans.
Studies show that half of prisoners nationally have at least one mental disorder.
While the case manager will work for Lancaster County Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, the worker will spend much of each day seeing Lancaster County Prison inmates or parolees. The prison population exceeds 900.
"If people are being treated or they're up to date on medications, they have the ability to make better decisions and not cause harm to society," County Commissioner Scott Martin said, in support of the new position.
Lawrence George, executive director of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, said the county's new prison suicide prevention committee discussed the need for the position. Three inmates have died by hanging this year, and others have attempted to kill themselves.
Immediately connecting released offenders with mental health services reduces a key risk factor for recidivism, said Mary Steffy, interim executive director of Mental Health America of Lancaster County.
"We've been saying for years we've got to reduce recidivism and get people to the mental health treatment they need," Steffy said, "and it seems to me (the new position) addresses both issues."
Inmates with mental illness tend to stay in prison longer than is necessary, costing taxpayers more, because of the complexities in planning their release, said Julie Holtry, deputy director of mental health for Behavioral Health and Developmental Services.
A case manager focused on helping those inmates and communicating with attorneys and judges may be able to expedite a release plan, Holtry said.
"Prison is not an environment conducive to wellness," she said, and it's important to plan well for offenders' return to society, connecting them with health insurance, medical services, counseling and other supports.
Planning well for release may also reduce hospital stays, George said.
The county has allocated $47,000 for salary and benefits. The funds come from a $327,274 discretionary state block grant the county taps to meet human service gaps.
Martin said the county wants to fill the position as soon as possible after the state adopts a budget.
Lancaster County has a mental health court serving 55 offenders, George said. The new manager will serve the scores of offenders not eligible for the special court, "often doing the challenging leg work necessary to determine their eligibility for services," he said.
The county already has a specialized case manager for sex offenders who have a serious mental illness.