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Lawyers say a Pennsylvania county traps people with mental illness in jail indefinitely

Samantha Melamed, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in News & Features

PHILADELPHIA — Reviewing a case at the Delaware County Courthouse last week, President Judge Kevin F. Kelly grew exasperated. The question at hand was whether to release a man whose incarceration Kelly acknowledged was illegal but who had serious mental illness and no treatment lined up.

“This is about as helpful as a rubber crutch,” he finally told the lawyers arguing in front of him. “Either I keep him in jail or I let him go, but he still has no help.”

In the end, Kelly agreed to postpone the decision another week, hoping some help could be found by then.

But left unresolved, the Delaware County public defender has argued, is a larger problem: The county has been jailing people with mental illness for alleged offenses resulting from their disabilities — then keeping them in jail for months or even years because county probation and jail mental health staff had not made housing or treatment arrangements, and would not approve alternatives such as homeless shelters.

Those concerns were outlined in a series of filings over the last few weeks seeking immediate release for a half-dozen people whose public defenders say were locked up with no legal basis.

“Jail is not a resource,” First Assistant Defender Lee Awbrey argued at the Sept. 7 hearing, adding that it’s known to exacerbate mental illness. ”Especially,” she added, “the jail in Delaware County, which is almost constantly in lockdown.”


County probation officials did not respond to questions from The Philadelphia Inquirer last week, and Kelly was unavailable for an interview, according to a spokesperson.

In an interview, Delaware County First Assistant District Attorney Tanner Rouse said his office is not always apprised of who’s detained for alleged probation violations but is working to better track that information.

“These are extremely difficult and oftentimes really sad cases,” he said, adding that a lack of resources in Delaware County and statewide often leaves few options for housing and treatment. “While the person doesn’t mean any harm, we have to recognize there is a distinct possibility of harm coming from their mental illness. So we have to make sure if a person is going to be released that they have a plan in place that will ensure the safety of the community.”

Delaware County is not alone in disproportionately jailing people with mental illness. One U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics national prisoner survey found 44% of people in jail had some mental health history, and more than a quarter were in serious psychological distress.


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