BLOOMINGTON — The number of mentally ill individuals booked into the county jail has continued the upward trend started in 2002, according to data reviewed Wednesday by the McLean County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

This year, about 30 percent of those entering the jail were identified by police or self-reported as having a mental illness, In 2002, 17.1 percent of those coming into the jail on new charges were mentally ill, according to statistics compiled by Illinois State University's Stevenson Center for Community and Economic Development.

Between 2002 and 2017, about 7,000 people with behavioral health issues were booked into the jail, said the study.

The possible reasons behind the increase vary, said ISU graduate student Juan Zamarripa, who presented the data to the council.

Inmates "are either reporting more or there's not enough services and people are finding their way into the jail," said Zamarripa, who works with the Stevenson Center to provide criminal justice data to the council.

Enhanced mental health training for law enforcement officers to help them identify the symptoms of mental illness may be an additional factor in the increase, said Samarripa.

The Stevenson Center study indicates that each of those 7,000 mentally ill people booked into the jail over the past 15 years was jailed an average of four times, a statistic that supports observations in a report on local mental health released in 2015 by the McLean County Board.

In 2017, 1,134 individuals — or 25.6 percent of all people booked — entered the jail with a mental health issue. Breaking down those numbers further, the study found that 15.5 percent of the 1,134 had six to 10 bookings each; half had one or two bookings and 23 percent came to jail three to five times.

McLean County Sheriff Jon Sandage said it's likely the recent numbers offer a truer representation of the extent of mental illness than what was known more than a decade ago.

"The numbers were probably underreported and now we're getting a more accurate picture," said Sandage. 

The practice of using the jail's booking area to house mentally ill detainees continues so staff can monitor those who need constant supervision. Comprehensive assessments of newly booked inmates also helps detect mental health issues, said the sheriff.

"We are doing a better job of identifying mental illness but it's still a challenge," said Sandage.

Current construction of an addition to the jail will help the county provide better services and more suitable housing for mentally ill inmates. A specialized unit supervised by trained staff will be a major improvement to the chaotic booking area, said Sandage.

"We are trying to do more on our end and keep them from declining while they are in our care, but that doesn't fix the problem," said Sandage.

The county board's Mental Health Action Plan outlined several areas of major concern, including housing, crisis care, services for children and medication management. The county's Behavioral Health Coordinating Council, which comprises health care providers, criminal justice policymakers and elected officials, is working to address those concerns.   

Follow Edith Brady-Lunny on Twitter: @pg_blunny

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