TACOMA, Wash. -- The Pierce County Jail is experiencing an increase in the number of inmates coming in with mental illness. And according to county jail officials, taking care of these inmates is costing taxpayers and putting a strain on the jail's budget.

"We are very busy,” said Janet Rhoton, mental health manager at the jail. She says the average number of people treated per day for mental illness has increased since January when that number was at 65 inmates.

“In April, the average number of people that were in mental health beds was 75. Last month was 85."

Rhoton says that number is high, and officials say they’re not getting the treatment they need in the community to stay out of jail.

"There's people that I see in here that I see more than my family members. They are just in and out in and out of the system,” said Patti Jackson, chief of corrections at the Pierce County Jail.

Terry Moser, 36, is one inmate who has been in and out of the system. He says in part due to mental illness.

"I myself needed help on the streets, but I couldn't get help because my meds expired and I didn't have mental health insurance," said Moser. "And by the time I did get mental health insurance, it was too late."

Moser first went to jail at 13 years old. Right now he’s in jail because he's accused of three counts of robbery and assault in the first degree. He says ADHD turned into depression and now schizophrenia.
He’s housed in an area called the tank.

"This is like one of the only mental health tanks there is. There is probably a need for another mental health tank possibly because it's always full in here but this is the only tank."

But it costs money - taxpayer money - to monitor people like Terry and others who come into the jail with more severe issues. Chief Jackson says one overflow area which houses about 12 acute mentally ill inmates is unfunded.

"It costs about $1,500 per day just to staff if alone just for a deputy. That’s overtime.”

It's money the jail says it doesn't really have - a problem county leaders are aware of.

"It's a tragedy. You end up with your jail being your largest mental health hospital and that's kind of shameful," said Democratic Councilman Derek Young.

Council members on both sides of the aisle would agree.

“There should be no reason why we’re treating 85 inmates per day for mental illness. That’s too much,” said Republican Councilmember Doug Richardson.

While council leaders understand the issue, the county is still sorting out how to find a resolution.

Pierce County is the only urban county in the state without a mental health tax, a tax that could generate millions to fund local mental health programs to reduce the number of mentally ill people ending up in jail.

The county has contracted with an outside company to perform a countywide health assessment that could determine how money could be spent if a mental health tax was implemented.

“We can’t just collect money from taxpayers and not have a clear idea first on programs or services that will help resolve this issue. We need to take a holistic approach,” said Richardson.

The county is expected to complete this health assessment in 2016 before they reconsider a possibly voting on a mental health tax. In the meantime, the cycle for many inmates will continue.

"It’s easier to go get a bottle or get drugs, shoot up or whatever, than it is to get medication,” said Chief Jackson. “So we get them back in here again, high and drunk and off their meds and unstable. It’s just cyclical.”