Prison mental health issues to be discussed
Forum will be held Sept. 19 at BC3 campus
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Eagle Staff Writer
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September 13, 2017
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BUTLER — A Pulitzer Prize finalist will give a presentation Oct. 19 that will serve as another step in the county’s march toward providing the best possible mental health care in the criminal justice system.

Pete Earley and his son, Kevin, will present “Mental Health Treatment within the Criminal Justice System” for professionals only from noon to 4 p.m. Sept. 19 at Butler County Community College’s Founders Hall.

Earley will break with tradition and give a public presentation from 5 to 8 p.m. that evening, also in Founders Hall. All are invited to attend the free presentation, but registration is encouraged.

Earley is the author of “Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness,” which was one of two finalists for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize.

Earley will talk about the connection between mental health and the criminal justice system — and why it is imperative to identify and assist those who suffer from a mental illness when they find themselves mixed up in the police and court system as a result of their issues.

He said his odyssey with Kevin 20 years ago demonstrated that those with mental illnesses often commit nonviolent crimes and find themselves arrested and in court.

“These are people who need treatment, not punishment,” Earley said. “It’s a waste of human potential and taxpayer money.”

Kevin Earley, who has been stable for seven years and is a certified peer-to-peer mental health worker, will tell his story of repeated interaction with police and courts as a result of his mental health issues and how he recovered.

“The police say there’s nowhere to take them, the courts say let’s get them back into the community, and the community says there’s no housing,” Pete Earley said. “It’s a terrible cycle.”

Earley learned through his issues with Kevin, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after many arrests and hospitalizations, that only two of the seven psychiatrists who visited his son in the hospital learned his name and diagnosis because many insurance companies only pay for 15 minutes of psychiatric treatment per doctor.

“It’s a really ineffectual system,” Earley said. “That’s why so many people (with mental health issues) are in jails and prisons. You can’t get help.”

Butler County Commissioner board Chairman Leslie Osche and county Judge Tim McCune look forward to hearing the Earleys’ experiences at next week’s forum.

Both say it is part of a continued effort in the county to serve those with mental illnesses who enter the county’s criminal justice system.

McCune said the county’s behavioral health court started about three years ago.

“We realized there are a lot of people in our county who are involved in the criminal justice system who have serious mental illness issues that are not diagnosed or treated,” McCune said.

He said a defendant’s lawyer or the district attorney will state in court during the defendant’s initial hearings that the person might benefit from the assistance available at behavioral health court.

An assessment by a team of county mental health experts follows, and the individual gets further help from there.

“The goal is to get people to stay in treatment that they need and to make sure they are taking care of their responsibilities and to get them healthy again,” McCune said, “which would lead to them not breaking the law.”

He said many people with mental illnesses find themselves in the criminal justice system because they self-medicate with illegal substances “to feel normal.”

McCune said police throughout the county have received numerous training sessions and new programs at the county level have served to help those who need it most.

“I was the district attorney for 10 years and a judge for 12, and I think we’ve made great strides,” he said. “Our system has done a better job of identifying those people and not just throw them in jail.”

Osche backed up McCune’s statement, saying many prisons have a 70 to 80 percent inmate population with mental health issues.

She said county prison data gleaned by Amy Peters, the director of mental services with the Butler County Human Services Department, showed that 31 percent of inmates had documented mental health issues, 44 percent had documented drug and alcohol issues and 15 percent had co-occurring issues.

The data also found that inmates with mental health issues spent 37 percent more time in the prison than those without.

Osche said she hopes the Earleys’ presentation will further educate the police, judges, sheriff’s department and district attorney’s office personnel and others who attend next Tuesday.

To register for “Mental Health Treatment within the Criminal Justice System,” email spugh@co.butler.pa.us.