Montgomery Co. starting program for mentally ill defendants

John McCarthy
John McCarthy Photo by Suzanne Pollak

John McCarthy, Montgomery County’s state’s attorney and the county’s top cop, announced that his office is beginning a pilot diversionary program that he hopes will reduce the incarceration rate for people suffering from mental illness.

Using federal dollars, the county during the next two years will select 120 people who are about to enter the county jail and instead provide them with a place to live and make sure they use their medicine correctly, McCarthy told about 75 people at the senior citizens Men’s Club meeting at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington Tuesday afternoon.

His office is working to create mental health courts, he said. “To reduce crime, we’ve got to address mental health issues.”

Jails have become the largest mental health hospitals in the country, McCarthy said.  Last year, 28 percent of the people entering the county jail were diagnosed with a mental illness severe enough to require immediate psychiatric intervention, he said.

McCarthy touched on numerous topics, telling the group that police should wear cameras and that a county should not investigate police incidents resulting in death inside its own borders.
He also pointed to a steep increase in heroin deaths.

“I think that it is a tragedy that the police have become public enemy No. 1,” he said. Police and prosecutors need to “rebuild public trust, particularly in the minority community,” he said.

That is why he believes police officers should be equipped with cameras. When cameras are used, both the police and the public act better, he said. “They know they are being memorialized.”
Within the next few weeks, the police are expected to receive 100 cameras, he said.

Those cameras, which are the size of a lipstick, come with a host of issues, he said. In addition to the $2,000 price tag per camera, there are costs to supply the footage to the public and attorneys as well as storage costs, he said.

While rare in Montgomery County, there are police incidents which result in deaths. Cameras can help decipher what happened, but as far as McCarthy is concerned, police and prosecutors should never investigate their own.

He is working to create reciprocal agreements with surrounding counties so that the county where the incident took place would not be the county where it is investigated.

McCarthy would like police officers to receive more training about when to use force. Police should never “create the moment” when force becomes necessary, he said.

Last year in Montgomery County, which has a population of 1.1 million, 41 people died due to heroin abuse, he said. Statewide, that number was 700 people, a 300 percent increase, McCarthy said. He expects the statewide toll to continue to rise.

People are being prescribed intense pain killers, such as the opiate OxyContin, McCarthy said. When the prescription expires or when they no longer can afford the cost, they turn to heroin, he said. OxyContin “is basically pharmaceutical heroin,” only heroin is less expensive, he said.

People can recover from their addiction, but it takes more than the 30 or 60 days of treatment typically covered by health care plans, he said.

Following an average health care treatment plan, 96 percent of the people are still addicted, McCarthy said.

“Adequate treatment is a one-year program, at least, not 30 to 60 days.”

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