06/02/2010 05:54 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Homes, Not Jails or Prison, Are What's Needed for People With Mental Illnesses

Homeless and severely mentally ill, Lavelle has been arrested more than 150 times in the last decade, traveling between Chicago's littered skid row and the Cook County Jail without ever getting any meaningful treatment. A recent study issued by the National Sheriff's Association and the Treatment Advocacy Center, entitled "More Mentally Ill Persons Are in Jails and Prisons Than Hospitals: A Survey of the States," shows that Lavelle is not alone.

The study describes the shocking fact that there are now three times more mentally ill persons in American jails and prisons than there are in hospitals. In many urban areas, it's much worse. In California, it's about four times worse, in Florida, the figure is five times, and in Arizona, there are nine times more people with mental illness imprisoned than in psych wards. The human and financial implications of this worsening national trend are frightening. People with mental illnesses should have mental health treatment and a safe place to live instead of languishing in already overcrowded jails and prisons. Shockingly, in the end, it's the taxpayers that get stuck. In California alone, more than $100,000 a year is spent to incarcerate a single person with mental illness.

Today, I'm joined in this blog by Martin F. Horn of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, former Commissioner of NYC Department of Correction and Probation, and the Honorable Evelyn Stratton of the Ohio State Supreme Court, both co-chairs of CSH's Returning Home Advisory Committee, to say that there is a better way. And the Sheriff's Association report provides a road map. It calls for more mental health courts like the ones in Ohio that get people into community treatment programs rather than imprisoning them. It calls for overhauling our mental health laws and improving community-based services as is happening in states like New York. And we also need supportive housing -- safe, affordable housing that is closely linked to the mental health services and other supports people with mental illnesses need to thrive in the community and stay out of jail. Communities across the country are proving supportive housing works.

These communities are making certain that people with serious mental illness move into apartments and get the services they need when they are released from jail, rather than being dumped homeless on the streets. By making supportive housing available, cities have been able to drastically reduce the number of days people with mental illness stay in jail. In New York, the reduction has been 53%, in Denver the reduction is 76% and in Rhode Island it is 79%. A recent study by John Jay College of Criminal Justice found that supportive housing not only broke the cycle of incarceration and homelessness, but also is expected to begin saving tax dollars after three years by reducing stays in jail (which costs $129 a day) and reliance on homeless shelters (which costs $68 per day).

Lavelle adds a human face to this story. After his last stint in jail, he moved into supportive housing, was enrolled in treatment, got re-connected to his family, and has remained out of jail since then -- something that even he thought would be impossible.

The National Sheriff's Association and the Treatment Advocacy Center's disturbing report has sounded yet another alarm about our need to stop incarcerating people who are seriously mentally ill, homeless, and suffer from co-occurring disorders such as alcoholism and drug addiction. For those who listen the report demonstrates that addressing the housing needs and providing services to Lavelle and the thousands more like Lavelle is the right solution.