Recent poll shows majority of people don’t want nonviolent, mentally ill offenders behind bars

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SHELBY COUNTY, Tenn. -- A new nationwide poll shows the majority of people don’t think mentally ill and nonviolent criminals should be behind bars. Instead, the majority of people say rehabilitation and treatment is a better option.

Right now, about 2,500-2,600 people sit behind bars at the Shelby County jail.

“The sheriff spends over 50 percent of his budget, about 53 percent of his budget, goes to the jail," said SCSO Chief Deputy Floyd Bonner.

It consumes money and time, but a new poll shows the majority of people think there should be stricter requirements of who gets locked up.

Out of about 3,000 respondents nationwide, 62 percent believe in rehabilitation or treatment for nonviolent offenses and over three-quarters believe in rehabilitation for offenders who don’t commit the most serious crimes and suffer from mental illness.

“We believe that it's very important that the people that are in jail, incarcerated now are felons," said Bonner. "The people that have mental issues, hopefully, we can keep them out of jail.”

Which is why Shelby County continues to seek funding for alternative options.

Mental health court launched last January and just graduated two people, while drug court’s been around for 20 years in Shelby County.

Next month, the veterans court is graduating 25 people, which is its largest class since starting about five years ago.

Court representatives said these alternative options hopefully tackle the root of the problem, breaking the cycle.

“I feel like it could have an effect on the revolving door because if they get proper treatment, that could prevent them from going back and re-offending," said Arnell Thompson, who lives in Memphis.

Bonner said everyone benefits from freeing up jail space.

“It saves the taxpayer's money," he said. "It saves the community because we're redirecting those individuals to services they need in the community.”

Shelby County is one of nine communities to receive a $150,000 grant to help with these alternative jailing options.

County representatives said they’re looking for more grants to hopefully expand these programs.