Mental health care, not jails: Williams seeks change

Published 10:00 am Friday, March 3, 2023

Thousands of individuals with mental illness are incarcerated in Alabama rather than receiving healthcare. City council member Tammie Williams is trying to change that for LaFayette.

Williams proposed hiring a mental health expert to consult on cases with the LaFayette Police Department during Tuesday’s council meeting.

“I see some individuals in our city that I know personally have some mental issues. And I’ve seen a couple of them being arrested and taken to jail,” Williams told the Valley Times-News. “My personal opinion is I don’t think jail is the appropriate place for somebody with severe mental issues. We need to seek some other type of resources instead of just being incarcerated.”

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The consultant would be available as needed to help with behavioral communications. Williams and Chief George Rampey agreed to work together to determine an appropriate applicant to present to the council.

“We want to let our citizens know that mental health matters,” Williams said. “We’re concerned about it.”

Williams said the aim is to provide individuals with the care that they need. According to the Alabama Department of Mental Health, approximately 2 million individuals with mental illness are admitted to jails in the U.S. every year.

“A lot of people are arrested that really need to be in a mental institution somewhere,” Williams said during the meeting. “Jail is not the place for them.”

According to the BJA, approximately 15% of men and 31% of women in jails suffer from serious mental illness. The U.S. evaluates more than 60,000 cases for adjudicative competence annually. These are evaluations that determine whether an individual is competent to stand trial. 

Those adjudicated as incompetent made up approximately 20% to 30% of those cases. According to statistics from the BJA, those individuals can spend more time in jail waiting on restoration for their trial than they would serving a sentence for the alleged offense.

Council member Toney Thomas agreed that the citizens of LaFayette need to be provided with the appropriate care that they need.

“They don’t need to be locked up. Being locked up in population — that’s not what they need,” Thomas said during the meeting.

Hiring the consultant would also reduce the risk of injuries to individuals with mental illness and police officers. Many law enforcement agencies in Alabama have participated in programs such as the Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT) and Stepping Up Alabama. 

The Opelika Police Department has formed a community CIT in conjunction with the Tuscaloosa Police Department, East Alabama Mental Health Center, NAMI East Alabama, Auburn University Psychological Services Center, R.O.S.S. and the State of Alabama CIT Coordinators office. 

According to the city of Opelika website, 14 police officers have been certified in mental health crisis intervention.

The ADMH has joined the national program called Stepping Up Initiative. The program aims to build working relationships between county-level law enforcement and mental health providers. As of 2019, 24 of the 67 counties in Alabama have passed resolutions in partnership with the program. Many of the county programs are funded by the ADMH.

“It would just be the ideal thing that if we get a call, and it is dealing with someone with some mental health issues, we will have the right people in the right places at the right time,” Williams said.