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Researchers Study How to Improve Mental Health Conditions at County Jail

The Wake County Detention Center in Raleigh. Photo courtesy of Wake County.

Through a partnership with the Wake County Sheriff’s Office, NC State researchers are studying how to improve mental health conditions at the county jail.

The project, which supports Wake County’s participation in the White House’s Data-Driven Justice Initiative, aims to help the jail operate more efficiently, but also improve the care and outcomes of those with mental health problems.

“Our work is focused on developing a better understanding of the mental health needs of detainees during the course of their stay in the Wake County Jail,” said Sarah Desmarais, an associate professor of psychology at NC State and the principal investigator on the project.

A team led by Desmarais recently began reviewing existing mental health screening, assessment and treatment practices at the Wake County Jail, in addition to data detailing repeated arrests and jail stays for individual detainees. Over the course of six months, the team will analyze what they find based on national models and best practices for the assessment, care and successful community re-entry of those with mental health problems. The researchers will ultimately develop and recommend strategies that:

  • Better identify detainees with mental health problems.
  • Prioritize the assessment and treatment of detainees with mental health problems.
  • Determine the unique classification needs of detainees with mental health problems.
  • Improve the community treatment and re-entry of detainees following their release, to reduce the risk of suicide and future incarceration.   

The work is being conducted out of NC State’s Forensic Psychology in the Public Interest lab, which studies public health issues within the criminal justice system. The lab’s research, such as a recent study documenting how mental health courts can reduce repeat offending, provides critical insights for lawmakers, health practitioners and other scholars.

Findings from this study will also help inform key stakeholders, including elected officials and jail staff. Funded by a $95,000 grant from Wake County Government, it’s one facet of the county’s involvement in the White House’s Data-Driven Justice Initiative. With the goal of “disrupting the cycle of incarceration,” the initiative launched in 2016 is backed by a commission of cities, counties and state governments committed to using data-driven strategies to divert low-level offenders with mental illness out of the criminal justice system. The National Association of Counties is helping lead the collaborative and will continue to after the impending change in presidential administration.

According to the White House, more than 11 million people move through America’s 3,100 local jails each year, costing local governments about $22 billion. About 64 percent of those people have a mental illness, 68 percent have a substance abuse disorder and 44 percent suffer from chronic health problems. Click here to learn more about the initiative.