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Where human needs and government intersect. The Division of Community Services promotes ongoing economic security and independence for the people of Shelby County. We do this by promoting, coordinating and delivering services that address the underlying conditions for well-being and justice. We strive to be a highly organized team and partner, dedicated to promoting a strong community where all people are able to reach their full potential.

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Feb 28

Mental Health Challenges in Criminal Justice System

Posted on February 28, 2020 at 12:17 PM by Janet Lo

2020-02-OJI - BHUOffice of Justice Initiatives, Behavioral Health Unit

Mental Health Challenges in the Criminal Justice System: The Need for Shelby County’s Behavioral Health Unit 

According to a Mental Health America 2015 report, 1.2 million people with mental illnesses sit in jail and prison every year. That is more than half of all Americans in jail or prison.  

Let that sink in. Half of all Americans in prison have a mental illness. 

Tennessee unfortunately ranks within the top ten states with the least access to mental health care. Shelby County took action in January 2016 to ensure that defendants in the criminal justice system, that have been identified as having a mental illness, have options for care and treatment that will ultimately reduce their risk of future incarceration.  

Qualifying defendants suffering from mental illness can go on probation, in lieu of incarceration, and have the option to have their charges dropped in exchange for completing a year-long mental health treatment plan determined by Shelby County’s Mental Health Court.

Defendants must plead guilty to stay in the yearlong program, but once they complete it, their arrest records are expunged. The program includes mental and physical health care, help with alcohol and drug abuse, housing assistance and, if they are capable, employment assistance.

The need is great in Shelby County. The court's clients, most commonly charged with theft, have been arrested an average of 136 times, with records that go back 20 to 25 years, mostly based on "nuisance crimes" — shoplifting, public drunkenness, and crimes associated with drug use. The court calls them "frequent fliers," meaning they're in and out of jail 8 to 10 times per year.

Shelby County's mental health court is presided over by Judge Gerald Skahan. Its performance and the critical needs among an estimated 500 people in jail with a diagnosed mental illness persuaded officials to double the court’s current case load to 50 offenders since it began in 2016.  

If you know someone that is currently in jail awaiting trial, on probation, or in prison that has a mental health condition and needs help with seeking treatment or medication, please contact the Behavioral Health Unit team at 901-222-2043.