Health Services At County Jails Could Get Big Boost Under Proposed Bill

FILE - In this Oct. 22, 2014 file photo is Illinois Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin who was re-elected Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014
FILE - In this Oct. 22, 2014 file photo is Illinois Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin who was re-elected Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014 to a fourth term defeating state Sen. Jim Oberweis. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File)

With almost 10,000 on-site inmates, the Cook County Jail in Chicago is the size of a small city -- one in which roughly one-third of the population is mentally ill.

Over the past few years, the CCJ has emerged as the single largest mental health care provider in the state, and maybe even the country, the jail's executive director, Cara Smith, said Thursday.

Unlike state and federal prisons, local and county jails don't qualify as a National Health Service Corps site. NHSC sites are eligible for funding that allows them to attract top health care talent with loan forgiveness programs -- typically $50,000 for a two-year commitment.

“The crisis we see in the Cook County Jail is a crisis that’s shared by jails all across the country," Smith said. "The exclusion of county jails from the NHSC program is just nonsensical: It ignores the reality of the role county jails are in the country. We are in most ways -- we act as a state prison system."

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) introduced a bill Wednesday that would expand NHSC to include county and municipal jails.

"Even if someone is incarcerated, they are still entitled to necessary medical care," Durbin said in a statement. "Improving local jails’ ability to recruit skilled, committed health care professionals and expand their inmates’ access to behavioral health services and other health care will help reduce recidivism and improve public safety. State and federal prisons are already included in this program for these very reasons. It is only logical to include county and municipal correctional facilities as well.”

Smith noted county jails like hers have no discretion when it comes to inmate intake.

"We have to take people regardless of how sick they are -- regardless of if they’re psychotic, regardless of if they have cancer," Smith said. "About 75 percent of people who come into our custody go back to the community. If we’re serious about stopping the cycling of recidivism, we need to take advantage of the time they have with us."

In a release about the bill, Durbin said expanding the NHSC would help county and municipal jails "better attract highly qualified behavioral, and medical, health professionals."

"[Sen. Durbin] feels very strongly about this issue to make a positive change and has pushed a number of criminal justice reforms over the years," Ben Marter, a spokesman for Durbin, told The Huffington Post on Thursday. "It's a very high priority for him."

Marter noted Durbin's previous prison-reform bills, like the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2015, have drawn strong bipartisan support from fellow Democrats like Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, as well as from some lawmakers who typically have opposing ideologies, such as Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

"There’s an unlikely collection of senators pushing for criminal justice reform," Marter said.