New Program Seeks to Keep Iowans With Severe Illnesses Out of Jails, Prisons

(Radio Iowa) A new initiative will be launched in eastern Iowa next month, to try to keep Iowans with severe mental illnesses out of county jails and state prisons. Leslie Carpenter, co-founder of Iowa Mental Health Advocacy, is leading the pilot project.

“In Johnson County we are developing the state’s first civil mental health court,” she says, “that will run in conjunction with a program called assisted outpatient treatment.” The nine counties in the East Central Mental Health Region are providing funding for the project over the next two years. Doctors will refer patients to the program as they’re being released from the hospital after intensive mental health treatment. Carpenter says it will be for people who repeatedly stop taking medication for chronic mental illnesses.

“Mental illnesses, some of them like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder — schizoaffective disorders, cause changes in the brain to make them unaware of their own mental illness and that’s why they repeatedly stop treatment,” Carpenter says. National data shows people with severe or chronic mental illnesses are four times more likely to be arrested than other adults. People in the new Johnson County program will have regular meetings with mental health professionals AND with a judge or probation officer to discuss their medications and whether they’re experiencing side effects. Carpenter says it’s patterned after a New York program that’s been shown to reduce future arrests.

“When they’re taking their medications and engaged in treatment, they’re able to stay out of the hospital and in some cases stay out of jail and more successfully manage their lives,” Carpenter says, “go to school, have jobs, have families.” In New York, a state law allows courts to issue orders for “assisted outpatient mental health treatment” for appointments with medical professional as well as someone from the court system.