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Dart Tells Congress ‘We Have Criminalized Mental Illness In This Country’

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WASHINGTON (CBS) – Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has taken his appeal for more help for mentally ill jail inmates to Capitol Hill.

WBBM Newsradio Political Editor Craig Dellimore reports Dart testified Wednesday morning before a Congressional subcommittee looking at mental health services.

The sheriff told members of Congress the Cook County Jail remains the nation’s largest mental health facility, with at least 30 percent of its 9,000 inmates suffering from serious mental illness.

“The unfortunate undeniable conclusion is that, because of the dramatic and sustained cuts in mental health funding, we have criminalized mental illness in this country; and county jails and state prison facilities are where the majority of the mental health care and treatment is administered,” Dart said.

Many inmates are awaiting trial for relatively minor – often drug-related – offenses.

He said those people should be getting medical and psychological help, not simply incarcerated awaiting trial.

“What we have done in our county now, is my staff interviews every detainee before they appear in bond court regarding their mental health history. Those who admit to a history are identified for the Public Defender’s office, and then we make efforts to try to appeal to the judges for alternative programs,” he said. “Unlike state prisoners who have fixed release dates, pretrial detainees may be released at any time, which significantly complicates our ability to provide discharge planning.”

Even so, Dart said he tries to get help for those leaving the jail, too.

However, cuts in mental health funding make it hard to find help for those who need it.

“The question that plagues me, that keeps me up at night, is where do we go from here?” Dart said.

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