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Kadner: A sheriff’s crusade for mental health

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart shown here speaking St. Xavier University Chicago’s Mount Greenwood community has campaigned against 
decreased mental

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, shown here speaking at St. Xavier University in Chicago’s Mount Greenwood community, has campaigned against decreased mental health funding. | File photo

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Updated: April 29, 2014 6:24AM



As Gov. Pat Quinn was explaining why Illinois needs more money, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart was testifying before a U.S. congressional committee in Washington on Wednesday.

“The unfortunate, undeniable conclusion is that, because of dramatic and sustained cuts in mental health funding, we have criminalized mental illness in this country; and county jails and state prisons are where the majority of the mental health care treatment is administered,” Dart said.

Dart has been carrying that message to anyone willing to listen for years now.

Of the 11,000 or so inmates in the Cook County Jail, about 3,500 at any given time are suffering from a mental illness, Dart has said.

After the Sandy Hook School shootings in December 2012 (which resulted in the deaths of 20 children and six adults), there was a public outcry for improved mental health care in this country.

Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old gunman who murdered all those people and eventually shot himself, had suffered from a mental ailment for years.

At the time, I predicted the public’s attention would shift elsewhere and the push to improve mental health care would falter — and it has.

It simply costs too much to fund adequate treatment for the mentally ill.

And they are not a very effective voting bloc.

In his call to make the temporary Illinois income tax increase permanent, Quinn noted all of the state programs he had cut, the state facilities he had closed and the billions of dollars in savings that represented.

He didn’t mention it by name, but the Tinley Park Mental Health Center was among those facilities that the governor shut down.

That’s what politicians mean when they say they’re going to cut the fat out of the budget, although I doubt Republican Bruce Rauner would say as much.

Rauner says he will lower taxes, reduce spending and eliminate the $5 billion in unpaid bills sitting on the governor’s desk.

That’s a popular appeal to tax-weary voters that has worked in other states and may yet succeed in Illinois.

Cutting waste is what many people want.

I’m of a different mindset.

I want the government to do what I pay it to do, and, in part, that means providing health care for the mentally ill.

Dart notes that the cost of caring for a mental patient in Cook County Jail is far higher than it would be in a medical facility or via outpatient treatment.

That’s because jail guards are needed to provide security, there are court hearings involving judges and lawyers and then there’s the time police officers spend arresting the mentally ill in the first place.

It’s not an efficient way to spend your tax money.

It’s a waste.

But governors and candidates for governor don’t talk about that sort of thing or do anything about it.

And voters really don’t want to hear it.

People with developmental disabilities (those born with autism, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome) also have seen funding for their programs cut in recent years.

When resources are scarce, even Democrats cut their budgets and the casualties often are the people least able to fight back.

So the mentally ill end up in jails or homeless on the city streets.

Quite often, as Dart explained, they self-medicate because they can’t get the prescription drugs they need.

That means they buy illegal drugs, and to do that they need money, and to get the money they commit crimes.

There’s a cost to society in all of that, but aside from Dart, you won’t hear politicians talking about it.

Voters don’t want to hear commercial sound bites about drug addicts, mental patients and the need to reform a system that just doesn’t work.

Until, that is, some children get shot in a school building.

Or their own wife or husband is murdered in an office building.

Or someone takes a baseball bat to the head of their beloved grandmother.

“Why doesn’t someone do something?” suddenly concerned folks plead.

Don’t worry, I always respond. The feeling to actually do something will pass.

The number of psychiatric hospital beds in this country has gone from 559,000 in the 1950s to 43,000 today, the chairman of the congressional committee noted.

But that’s not all bad news.

A lot of those psychiatric beds used to be in mental institutions where patients were beaten, raped and neglected.

We have learned from that experience.

Today, our largest mental institutions are jail systems in Cook County, Los Angeles and New York.

Dart told a story about a person identified only as Mr. Jackson who was arrested after he attempted to steal towels from a Walgreens. On his way out, he asked the cashier to “charge these.”

He was arrested and charged with retail theft; the value of the items was $29.99.

Mr. Jackson spent 110 days in jail before being sentenced to probation.

The taxpayers of Cook County spent close to $16,000 as a result of that $29.99 theft, Dart said.

Another mental patient has been arrested more than 100 times, Dart testified, most recently after she attempted to steal $20 from a person’s purse during a church service.

She is a self-mutilator, Dart testified. He had special mittens made for her that came up to her armpits to keep her from scratching herself while in custody.

“Incredibly, she was sentenced to a prison term and recently was transferred to the state department of mental health,” Dart said.

“All said, the cost to taxpayers for her arrest and incarcerations is, conservatively, over $1 million and rising.”

Every night, some family in this country goes to bed hoping the phone doesn’t ring.

For at the other end of the line there could be a mentally ill relative in need of help.

And the fact is, there isn’t much help to be had.



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