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St. Joseph County looks to keep mentally ill out of jail and save taxpayer dollars

ST. JOSEPH COUNTY, Mich. (NEWSCHANNEL 3) - St. Joseph County is changing the way its booking criminals, keeping the mentally ill out of jail to save thousands in taxpayer dollars.
St. Joseph is one of four counties in the state awarded a grant from the Department of Community Health.
It's paying for a "Jail Diversion Pilot Plan" aimed to streamline the pre-booking process.
It will help keep mentally ill criminals out of jail and on the road to mental health treatment.
Mental health experts tell Newschannel 3 that in St. Joseph County up to 40% of inmates are mentally ill and jail time is not the answer.
In a few months, a training room at the St. Joseph County Jail will be renovated into an assessment room.
Before a suspect is booked, they'll be taken there and interviewed through television by a psychiatrist.
The criminal will either spend time behind bars or sign a contract.
"The contract is basically an agreement with the individual, Community Mental Health, and the judicial system that the individual would follow through with and complete a course of mental health treatment. If the person fails to do that, the charges could be resurrected," said Doug Lockwood with Community Mental Health of St. Joseph County.
The sheriff tells us this jail diversion program could potentially save thousands in taxpayer dollars, medication alone for inmates was $10,000 last year.
The program will also put deputies back on the streets faster instead of spending hours waiting for criminals to be assessed by a mental health professional at a hospital.
"It's frustrating on both ends, frustrating from the courts perspective, frustrating for officers dealing with day to day operations," said Undersheriff Mark Lillywhite.
The jail diversion program will also streamline data collection between the jail and Community Mental Health and down the road may prompt a mental health court.
"If somebody is seriously mentally ill, is jail really some place they ought to be?" said Lockwood.
Deputies will begin training this summer, and the assessment center is scheduled to be finished this September.