If anyone doubts the need for expanding the McLean County jail, consider that 30 percent of last year’s inmates had some form of mental illness.

The $39 million expansion  is making way for a three-story addition that includes 48 single-occupancy cells for inmates with special needs; 16 of those are for people diagnosed as seriously mentally ill.

A study in 2002 showed 17 percent of inmates needed specialized treatment; in 2017, that number — perhaps due to better reporting or better training to identify mental illness — was at 30 percent.

For many of those inmates, jail is a routine experience. Some commit infractions because they don’t have the proper medication or counseling; some because they find the jail, sadly, is the only place they can find the help they need or a roof over their heads.

Some people ("super utilizers") require the help of a multitude of services, such as medication, counseling, housing, education and jobs; others not only are mentally ill but are homeless or also might abuse drugs or alcohol. And a lack of insurance and medical coverage means repeated trips to emergency rooms and jails to get the help needed.

In the last 15 years, about 7,000 people with behavioral health issues were booked into the jail, according to a study whose results were shared last week with the McLean County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

The Illinois State University Stevenson Center study indicated that each of those people was jailed an average of four times.

In 2017, 1,134 people — or 25.6 percent of all people booked — entered the jail with a mental health issue, said the study. 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.

For years, the jail’s booking area has been used to house mentally ill detainees so they can be monitored. The current expansion project will provide more suitable housing and a way to provide better services with trained staff.

Still, as Sheriff Jon Sandage pointed out, it won’t fix the problem of our community’s lack of available services for those who need help. The county and service providers are working to provide increased services and outreach to make sure individuals who need help can find it.

Certainly, not everyone who is mentally ill is cruel, violent or a criminal. But lack of services, and a lack of training for those who interact with the mentally ill compound the issues, and sometimes turn a private illness into a public problem.

In Chicago, Sheriff Tom Dart said the Cook County Jail is the state's largest mental health hospital. Proportionately, the numbers are similar at the McLean County Jail.

The local jail expansion is expected to be complete in 2019. Unfortunately, it cannot come soon enough.

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