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A glimmer of hope for inmates with mental illness

Jack Lessenberry

Milton Mack, who was chief probate judge in Wayne County for many years, is probably the state judiciary’s top expert in the problems of prisons and the mentally ill.

Mack, now state court administrator, has long maintained that we could significantly reduce both our state prison population and its costs if more of our mentally ill could be put on medication instead of being locked up. But efforts at reform have too often been stymied by politicians who were more concerned about looking “tough on crime.”

But incoming Speaker of the House Tom Leonard, a 35-year-old former prosecutor from DeWitt, knows something needs to be done, and seems to want to fix it. “This is absolutely a bipartisan issue,” he told me in a telephone interview a few days ago, adding that he sees himself as a consensus builder and wants to reach across the aisle to Democrats.

That could result in an eventual savings of hundreds of millions for the taxpayers. An alarming and steadily growing percentage of those in Michigan prisons are certifiably mentally ill.

The good news is that over the last decade the total number of inmates has significantly declined by about 10,000. There were more than 51,000 in 2007, and only about 41,000 today, according to a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections.

But there are nearly 9,400 mentally ill prisoners – and on average, they cost taxpayers a lot more. In Michigan, the average cost of keeping someone behind bars is a little more than $35,000 a year. Many of the more severely mentally ill inmates, those who cannot safely be in the normal prison population, are in the Woodland Correctional Facility in Whitmore Lake. They each cost us more than $95,000 a year.

Some of the prison mental illness problem can be traced to the de-institutionalization movement of the early 1990s, when Governor John Engler led a push to close state mental facilities. Many of those released were in no shape to reenter society, and they ended up in prison.

A few years ago, some forward-thinking judges pioneered the idea of “mental health courts” which really means reserving a portion of the docket for the mentally ill.

One such pioneer was Genesee Probate Judge Jennie Barkey, who early on sentenced a prisoner to treatment rather than to prison, against the opposition of her young clerk, a newly minted lawyer named Tom Leonard. He told her, “Judge, this is never going to work.”

Well, it did. The man stayed out of prison, and Leonard ended up apologizing to him and the judge. Two years ago, as a legislator, Tom Leonard was the main force behind a major update to Kevin’s Law, which allows friends and family members to order treatment for someone who has had their mental illness confirmed by a physician.

Naturally, there will always be some mentally ill prisoners too dangerous to be released. But there are far more who could become productive members of society. The new speaker told me he knows that he doesn’t know everything; he intends to sit down with senior staff and the experts and discuss the next step.

Given that our ability to fix things is being choked off by our bloated corrections budget, this could be the most promising reform in years.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's Senior news analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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