The commonwealth is embarking on a long-term plan to reduce the numbers of mentally ill inmates in county prisons.
The project will see the Department of Corrections team up with the Council of State Governments Justice Center, a national organization it has previously worked with to reduce state prison costs.
Richard Cho, Director of Behavioral Health for the Justice Center, said despite falling incarceration rates and attempts to route people with mental illnesses out of prisons over the last decade, their numbers have actually edged upwards--both in Pennsylvania, and around the country.
"Jails have become, basically, the de facto mental health system," Cho said. "There's more people who get mental health treatment in jails than in most community-based mental health facilities."
Cho is working to help the commonwealth--and other states--get those figures down through a program called Stepping Up.
He said it focuses on the county level because that's where the bulk of mentally ill people end up, and little consistency exists in how they're handled.
"Most counties can't tell you exactly how many people have a mental illness in the jails," he said. "They may not even use a definition of mental illness that conforms to the way states and counties define mental illness."
13 counties in the commonwealth have already joined Stepping Up, and Cho said an effort is underway to get more on board.
Then, the group will collect data to help form a plan to standardize how mentally ill inmates are treated, and potentially reroute them to more appropriate care.