Benton County jail sees more mental health cases

The Benton County jail is experiencing a "mission creep" from a criminal justice institution to one that's increasingly confronted with mental health and medical cases, the county's top law enforcement official said Wednesday.

"We're not just housing inmates anymore. We're housing people with significant mental health issues, significant health issues, substance abuse issues, behavioral issues. And sometimes we're housing people that have a combination of two or three of those things," Sheriff Steve Keane told county commissioners at a special meeting.

He said state budget reductions play a role, leading to a drop in mental health evaluations of inmates by Eastern State Hospital staff. The number fell from 34 during the first five months of 2012 to 20 during the same time period this year, he said.

Meanwhile, the number of mental health interviews by staff from the local Lourdes Counseling Center and Benton Franklin Crisis Response Unit almost doubled, Keane said.

Keane said there were 25 suicide attempts at the jail from November 2012 through May 1, 2013.

Some changes are in the works, including reconfiguring the holding cell to increase observation abilities. Commissioners also recently gave their blessing to a plan to improve management of mental health issues at the jail.

It includes hiring a full-time mental health professional with a background in crisis intervention and contracting for a part-time medical services provider trained in psychiatry. They'll be in addition to the three-member Lourdes team that works in the jail by contract.

Recruitment of the mental health professional has started, and "we're preparing the request for qualifications for the (other post)," Ed Thornbrugh, director of the bicounty human services department, told the Herald. He noted his department also is working to bring additional mental/behavioral health crisis triage beds to the community.

When it comes to jail medical services, Keane said more staff is needed. Adding two more nurse positions would allow for 24-hour medical coverage, likely reducing the number of late-night ER trips and leading to savings, among other benefits, according to sheriff's office information.

That could be on the way -- commissioners Wednesday asked the county administrator to work with sheriff's officials on identifying money for the positions.

After the meeting, Commissioner Shon Small said progress is being made with the addition of mental health staff in the jail, and he also pointed to the move toward more centralized crisis response in the community with the planned relocation of the Crisis Response Unit to a new spot in Kennewick. Benton and Franklin county commissioners have endorsed the relocation plan.

In the county, "we're always trying to improve how we do business," Small said.

-- Sara Schilling: 582-1529; sschilling@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @saraTCHerald