Resource: Keeping the Mentally Ill out of Jail: Sheriffs as Litigants

By: Mary Zdanowicz

May 1, 2015

Alb. Gov't L. Rev

In March 2014, Congress convened a hearing titled “Where Have All the Patients Gone? Examining the Psychiatric Bed Shortage.” Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart testified “[s]ince becoming Sheriff in 2006, I have seen an explosion in the percentage of seriously mentally ill individuals housed in the jail.“I usually have about 3,500 mentally ill in my jail in a day.” In 2011, Sheriff Dart had announced that he had considered filing a lawsuit against the state for failing to provide services to prevent people with serious mental health problems from ending up in his jail.

The purpose of this paper is to develop a litigation strategy that will help Sheriffs accomplish that goal. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects disabled individuals who are at risk of institutionalization. This includes the mentally ill who are at risk of repeated incarceration in jails. They need an advocate to protect their rights under the ADA. Sheriffs and mentally ill inmates share a mutual interest in preventing the endless cycle of incarceration, which makes Sheriffs good candidates to take on the task. As third party litigants, Sheriffs could sue states on behalf of mentally ill inmates to ensure that the inmates receive the services and treatment that are needed to prevent them from returning to jail.