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La Crosse County Sheriff believes too many mentally ill end up in jail

jail cell doorsLa Crosse, Wis. (WXOW) – There’s a rise in Americans being diagnosed with a mental illness according to a study published in the journal Psychiatric Services.

Many of them don’t have access to treatment. In La Crosse, they typically end up in the county jail.

That was the focus of a community discussion Wednesday

The La Crosse County Jail sees 6,000 bookings a year. 40 percent report they have a mental illness.

“With the criminalization of a mental illness, so many times those people that are mentally ill rather than get the treatment they should, they end up getting themselves into some trouble,” Sheriff Steve Helgeson said.

Sheriff Helgeson described it becomes like revolving door, that is until they start medicating themselves with drugs.

“Then we really see them unfortunately go down hill and become very ill,” he explained.

At a community conversation, Helgeson and Judge Scott Horne talked about why they feel those with a mental illness end up in the

La Crosse County Sheriff Steve Helgeson talks during a community discussion.
La Crosse County Sheriff Steve Helgeson talks during a community discussion.

county jail.


“We live in a community where there are a lot of resources,” Judge Horne said. “Unfortunately, the demand really exceeds the resources that are available.”

For that reason, Helgeson says the jail increased their offerings like hiring a doctor and giving 24 hour nursing care. It doesn’t change his mind on the matter though.

Phone inside the La Crosse County Jail.“They should be in a hospital setting or a medical setting,” Helgeson stated. “They shouldn’t be in the jail.”

Judge Horne explained their hands are tied when looking at alternative measures for those with mental illness. He says it mostly falls on the district attorney.

“They’ve not been at all reluctant when they feel the circumstances are right to pursue or encourage a disposition in another system if that will be safe for the public and best for the person who’s involved,” he added.

“We need to begin with the proposition that people who have needs should have access to care and then ask the question what’s the best, most efficient way of providing that care,” Judge Horne further explained.

Sheriff Helgeson feels the county could do all they want to make it better, but it will take more effort coming from those higher up.

“Right now I don’t see the interest at the state or national level to do that,” Helgeson finished.Emblem for the La Crosse County Sheriff's Office.

One positive note is the success of the county’s drug court. They say while not everyone will succeed with it, it can be a big help in getting those to kick the drug and get help in coping with their mental illness.

They also say family need to try and get their loved ones help with their mental illness early before it comes to them being in court.

Jeremy Culver

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