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Commission hears push against jail expansion

Correction appended Dozens of people are expected to show up at a Mecklenburg County Commission meeting tonight to ask the board to reconsider plans to build a new jail that could cost $220 million. Instead, they want the county to invest in more jail diversion programs designed to help people struggling with mental illness and substance abuse problems. WFAE's Lisa Miller has more: The Sheriff's Office estimates about three-fourths of inmates have either a mental illness or are dealing with substance abuse. Ellen Penninger is one of three people signed up to tell commissioners that figure is a good reason to spend less on jails and more on diversion programs. "These beds are continually filled with people who need treatment but instead they're using our jails to try to give them some makeshift facility," says Penninger. Penninger works with Recovery Solutions, a program the county uses as an alternative to jail for people with mental illness. Currently the treatment center can only take in 14 people. If that center is full, inmates must depend on the limited mental health services the county offers in jail. Sheriff Chipp Bailey agrees that jail diversion programs could use more money. But he says there are many more inmates with substance abuse problems than with mental health issues. "I don't think diverting people into mental hospitals is going to save enough jail space or jail beds to not build a jail. I think we're going to have to," says Bailey. Bailey says the jails offer some of the county's best substance abuse treatment programs. Mecklenburg County currently spends $2.3 million on people who come through the county jails with mental health and substance abuse problems. Correction: Ellen Penninger is a graduate student at UNC Charlotte working toward her Masters in Social Work. She interns at The Center for Community Transitions.