A report released Wednesday calls out Allegheny County law enforcement officials and the court system for putting people in jail when alternatives would better serve the defendants and the taxpayers. Too bad it came out after James Marasco died of undetermined causes in the county jail while serving a 10-day sentence for loitering.
The report, by the University of Pittsburgh Institute of Politics, indicated the jail’s population had swelled to 2,200 despite falling crime rates. Many are locked up while awaiting disposition of their cases; 81 percent of inmates in the county jail are not serving sentences, compared with a national average of 62 percent. Only 19 percent of county inmates have been charged with violent crimes; the rest are there for drugs or the kind of lower-level crimes that landed Mr. Marasco behind bars.
Moreover, as many as 75 percent of inmates have mental illness, substance abuse problems or both. Mr. Marasco had mental illness and used drugs. Mental illness may be the underlying factor in a person’s crimes and should be taken into account before incarceration. The primary purpose of jail is correction, not treatment. It’s unlikely that a person’s mental illness will improve in jail. The illness is likely to worsen, and that is why mentally ill inmates often incur more disciplinary infractions and serve longer sentences than healthy peers.