A Florida sheriff’s Brief But Spectacular take on mental illness in county jails

Ken Mascara has been the sheriff of St. Lucie County in Florida for the past 20 years. He has seen funding for mental health facilities plummet, and as a result, more and more mentally ill patients end up languishing behind bars. Now, he gives his Brief But Spectacular take on making county jails safer, and smarter.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ken Mascara has been the sheriff of St. Lucie County in Florida for the past 20 years. He has seen funding for mental health facilities plummet.

    And, as a result, more and more mentally ill patients end up languishing behind bars.

    Tonight, he gives his Brief But Spectacular take on making county jails safer and smarter. This piece was filmed prior to the pandemic.

  • Ken Mascara, St. Lucie County, Florida, Sheriff:

    Well, if you have a loved one that's suffering from mental illness, it would only take a split-second and a bad decision for them to end up in a county jail.

    A couple of years ago, we had a — I think he just turned 18 years old — act up in a school. He was subsequently arrested for battery, I believe, brought to this facility. And he was severely autistic. He did not have parents. He was in a foster home.

    It took an enormous effort by all of our partners to get him removed from our jail into an in-patient treatment facility. Here's a kid that should have never been in our facility, never.

    I'm the sheriff of St. Lucie County. I have been here for 20 years.

    Get a designated driver. If not, this holiday season, these might be the only lights that you see.

    Over the past two decades, we have seen funding from the legislature diminish to mental health inpatient and outpatient facilities and programs. So, people who do suffer from mental illness have no place to go. For law enforcement agencies that deal with mental health individuals, they tend to bring them to jail, because there's no other place to bring them.

    Last year, it was roughly around 35 percent of our inmates that are on psychotropic medications. We were never, ever in a position to handle such severity of mental health inmates. We do have a section of the jail carved out that our mental health inmates reside in. And, of course, we separate them from every other inmate.

    Because we are a detention facility and awaiting inmates to go to trial, we have some inmates that have been here five or six years with us during the pendency of their trial. How do we shift jail beds to treatment beds? It's going to take money. It's going to take a committed governor, a committed legislature that funds these initiatives, that really addresses mental illness, as well as drug dependency.

    We have many programs here that we initiated that divert people out of our jail and, in general, out of the criminal justice system. I think, in the long run, those will benefit not only the inmate, not only the criminal justice system, but our community.

    There's a sheriff — I won't mention his name — that always touted himself as being the toughest sheriff in America. I want to be known as one of the smartest sheriffs in America.

    My name is Ken Mascara, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on the tragedy of mentally ill in county jails.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thank you for speaking out on that.

    And you can watch all our Brief But Spectacular episodes at PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.

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