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Onondaga County looks for options to help mental health inmates

Ellen Abbott
The Onondaga County Justice Center in Syracuse.

The number of mental health inmates at the Onondaga County Justice Center is on the rise, and the implications of that are widespread.

Esteban Gonzalez, chief custody deputy for the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office, sees more and more mental health cases in the jail’s daily count.

"It’s gotten pretty high in the last four weeks," Gonzalez said. "We have more than 20 constant observation inmates on any given day.”

Gonzalez believes some of the increase is due to the heroin epidemic currently plaguing central New York.  

“Without any place to go for rehabilitation, without any of the outpatient services that were recently available to the community, police officers have no choice than address the behavior of an individual being disruptive in the community and take them to jail," Gonzalez explained. "There’s no other place at two o’clock in the morning.”

Once there, state law requires deputies closely monitor those inmates, often keeping 24-hour watch over just one or two at a time. The implications have ripple effects on the Onondaga County budget.

Gonzalez estimates about half the department’s overtime bill pays for this watch.

Part of the answer to this problem is finding somewhere else for these inmates to go. Gonzalez says that’s the goal of an effort involving all of the stakeholders involved; probation, parole, police, and mental health departments. He says all are meeting in coming months to create a crisis intervention team model.

“Instead of bringing an individual to jail, we immediately assess on scene, address the needs of the individual and try to find an appropriate suitable alternative location in the community for them," Gonzalez said. "Whether it is CPEP (Comprehensive Psychiatric Emergency Program), or another facility. But many people with mental health crises that are visited upon them do not belong in jail.”

The other thing that would help is expansion of the jail’s mental health unit. A new design would allow deputies to monitor more than five inmates at a time, instead of one or two.

“This new structure would literally 300 times improve the amount of money we're spending on constant observation," Gonzalez said.

Movement on that front though has stalled. Some Onondaga County lawmakers believe the county is waiting until a new sheriff is in place after the fall election before moving ahead with an expansion.

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.