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Cook County Sheriff Says Mental Illness In Jails Must Be Addressed

Susan Stephens

The man in charge of the Cook County Jail says correctional facilities can do a much better job dealing with inmates who have mental health issues. Sheriff Tom Dart spoke to the League of Women Voters of Greater Rockford last night about his decade of efforts to support people with mental illnesses who end up in his jail. 

Dart says budget cuts for mental health programs have made things more difficult.

“The majority of these people we deal with, if given the opportunity to work with a program in the community, they would do it. But when those programs vanish or are so far stretched apart they have transportation issues, many of them will end up with me. The state issues, the city issues: reckless. Absolutely reckless.”

At any given time, nearly a third of the Cook County Jail’s inmates have been diagnosed with a mental illness. Among the strategies Dart has implemented was hiring a clinical psychologist as the jail’s director and requiring advanced mental health training for all corrections officers.  

Credit Susan Stephens / WNIJ
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart

Dart says any jail, no matter the size, can do better, cheaply, by making sure all inmates have good plans to re-enter their communities. He says making sure they have a place to live and trying to reconnect them to their families are key goals.

Dart says other critical programs connected with his jail help inmates get health insurance, stay on their medications, and find jobs.

Sheriff Dart on "no excuses" for doing nothing about mental health issues in jails.

Susan is an award-winning reporter/writer at her favorite radio station. She's also WNIJ's Perspectives editor, Under Rocks contributor, and local host of All Things Considered.
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