By Chris Adams

Nearly 300 counties across the country have pledged to participate in the Stepping Up Initiative, an effort to help keep mentally ill people out of the criminal justice system.

Dr. Fred Osher, who oversees the health components of The Council of State Governments Justice Center, detailed for the National Press Foundation the burgeoning mental health population in jail. In counties across the nation, Osher said, more people with mental illnesses are in jail than in psychiatric hospitals.

The Stepping Up Initiative revolves around a pledge by county governments to take the steps necessary to properly assess and possibly divert to treatment people with a mental illness who have committed a crime.

He said there are few counties that do the initial screening necessary to pinpoint detainees with mental illness and substance abuse problems.

For a county to agree to the pledge, they need to have leaders committed to the process; properly screen who is coming into a jail; develop baseline data to allow for assessments over time; develop an inventory of services that are available to detainees; and promise to track their progress.

So far, about 300 counties have stepped up, representing 30 percent of the U.S. adult population. There is no partisan divide in the issue – counties that signed up are rural and urban, blue state and red, Osher said.