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posted: 9/27/2011 5:00 AM

Prisons must treat, not just punish

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By Daily Herald Editorial Board

It's hard to know what will help Daniel Jason deal more productively with the people around him. It's easy to know what won't.

Prison.

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Yet, that's where the 27-year-old Buffalo Grove native finds himself, after a series of misbehaviors, including repeatedly violating protection orders involving his former girlfriend and sending threatening messages to an attorney.

Daily Herald columnist Burt Constable wrote about Jason's troubling case on Sunday. Diagnosed with the brain disorder Asperger syndrome, Jason has normal intelligence -- indeed was bright enough to graduate college early and to turn a $2,000 investment into $120,000 by trading options online -- but he has profound developmental disabilities.

He throws tantrums. He's insolent. He has trouble interacting in common social situations. These are hardly the types of behaviors that endear one to criminal justice authorities, so it's not hard to see why he has spent most of the last four years working his way deeper and deeper into the criminal justice system, from jails to prison cells, with no realistic prospect for improvement. To the contrary, his outlook appears likely to carry him more and more into trouble.

Even more disturbing, the options for diverting him -- or the one-in-six individuals held in jails and prisons across the United States -- toward a more productive future are few indeed. In a heartless economy, federal and state money for mental health treatment is dwindling. Prison systems are strained to bursting just with the five-in-six individuals whose criminal behaviors are not related to diagnosed mental disorders. And, there's no denying that his outbursts, violations of court orders and threats must be taken seriously.

"What's the answer?" asks Daniel Jason's father, Joseph. "You can't just keep him in jail and prison for his whole life."

No, we would hope not. Nor should we ignore the fact that we are making efforts, however inadequate, to deal with individuals with special needs. In Illinois, many counties have courts devoted to mental health cases. In addition to its mental health court, Lake County recently designated a special court for veterans. Among others, the state Department of Corrections operates centers at Dixon, with a major focus on mental health cases, and Sheridan, devoted to substance abuse.

And yet, we return to that 16 percent -- the portion of inmates experts estimate to have overriding mental disorders. It was just last month that we looked at the case of Angel Facio, the troubled teenager who turned inexplicably to violence against an Elgin teacher and who may complete his 13-year prison sentence and be returned to the streets without ever getting the mental health treatment he clearly needs.

No job. No social skills. A prison record. What kind of future can such a resume possibly foreshadow? Yet that's the only resume that a prison system focused on punishment and not treatment can provide for the mentally disabled.

Even in hard times, surely we can do better.

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