County Commission will meet Tuesday about jail diversion for the mentally ill

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MADISON COUNTY, Ala. - The largest mental health facility in Madison County is not a group home or residential facility -- it's the jail. That means a large number of the mentally ill remain behind bars, instead of receiving the help they need. County leaders are meeting Tuesday in hopes of starting the process to change that.

Mack Yates of the North Alabama Mental Health Coalition has been fighting for mental health reforms in Madison County for several years.  “We've met for three years and we've done some things to help mental health, but this we feel like is a real opportunity for the commissioners and the council and the city and the county to come together," said Yates.

He's proud of the fact election officials, police officers, deputies, and community members are finally gathering around the same table to have a meaningful conversation on jail diversion for the mentally ill.

“If the only tool you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, so you have to develop alternatives for people and do motivational engagement," said Leon Evans, a mental health expert.

Evans is from San Antonio, Texas, who says on average, the mentally ill die 25 years earlier than the rest of us.  It's not from their condition, but from preventable issues like heart disease and liver failure.  “Most of these people don’t get diagnosed and so they’re self medicating with alcohol and drugs," he said.

Evans launched a multi-faceted program in his home county to divert the mentally ill from jail cells and into residential facilities where they can get the help they need. He says the results speak for themselves.

“Our jail has 1,000 empty beds, the homelessness in downtown San Antonio is down 85%, we did research with a med school. The number of people going to the ER is down 50%," Evans explained.

Commissioner Bob Harrison is championing the effort for the County Commission and says because it costs $48 a day to house an inmate, the initiative won't require new money.  “The amount he uses -- his program is significantly less than that so what we can do is take those dollars we’re using to incarcerate folks and transfer them to this particular effort and have a savings at the same time," said Harrison.

It isn't clear what specific plan the commission will pursue, but Mack Yates hopes at least a part of the plan includes a new facility geared towards the mentally ill.  “Some place that a person can go to instead of jail," he said.

Monday night's meeting was a chance for the community to have an informal conversation with Leon Evans.

Tuesday morning, Mr. Evans will give a formal presentation to the County Commission, but the public is encouraged to attend. It will run from 10:00 a.m. - 12:30 p.m. at the Bob Harrison Community Center off of Pulaski Pike.