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Leaders looking to Benton County Jail to learn ways to improve mental health care

BENTON COUNTY, Wash. – The Benton County Jail is taking an innovative approach to help address the needs of its mentally ill inmates.

Now their program has caught the attention of congressional leaders who are looking to Benton County's system as a learning example for improving other facilities.

In the past five years Benton County Jail received a significant increase of mentally ill inmates. In 2014, the Sheriff’s Office started a mental health program within the jail.

"The innovative approach that we have is starting to be recognized across the state," Undersheriff Jerry Hatcher said.

Congressional leaders and staff are touring Benton County Jail and meeting with officials in the Sheriff's Office to find ways to improve other county jails in Washington.

"They want to share this at the Law Enforcement Academy and put this into the curriculum," Hatcher said.

Hatcher said after seeing the team that helps individuals in Drug Court it sparked an idea.

"Hey, I can bring in community resources, professionals, experts in these different fields to help us combat this terrible disease that's out there," he said.

Benton County has created a multi-disciplinary team of medical professionals, psychiatric prescribers, mental health professionals, mental health advocates (NAMI), case managers and chaplains that meets weekly to discuss and plan individual treatment for inmates.

Benton County corrections staff now receives mental health training to help officers better understand mental illness, symptoms to look for, and effective skills to cope with mental health emergencies. They’ve partnered with professionals at Lourdes Counseling Center, and the 4-day training takes place once, and sometimes twice a year.

Benton County’s also developed a mental health court for low-level offenders in the April of 2016.

Lourdes Transitions program works with nine local law enforcement groups, including Benton County. They provide a Transitions Jail Diversion program that focuses on those who are mentally ill and have committed a low-level misdemeanor. The program allows people who are acutely mentally ill to receive treatment rather than go to jail.

Hatcher is also working with Benton County Commissioners, like Jim Beaver to continue to find ways to improve mental health care.

"We have to figure out a way to get that help to them,” Beaver said. “And locking them up in a jail, we can do that, but that's very expensive. So, I think there’s options in the community and some other areas we can study to get a path forward for folks who need help."

They're planning on adding a mental health wing to the facility for the chronically ill inmates because Hatcher explains that there will always be a segment of the mentally ill that find themselves in the criminal justice system.

"So we have to have the right resources within the facility to deal with that and I think that Benton County is way out in front of most of the county in the state."

Hatcher said these efforts are possible because of the growing awareness giving his work momentum.

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