Pennsylvania Must Invest in Behavioral Health Services to Improve Public Safety

May 21, 2024

By Westmoreland County District Attorney Nicole W. Ziccarelli

Pennsylvania district attorneys are increasingly concerned with the growing need for behavioral health services in our counties. Our law enforcement officers continue to report encounters with offenders who display mental illness.

In fact, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections estimates that more than 35 percent of those incarcerated require some behavioral health treatment. Unmet behavioral health needs also drive up the population of county prisons.

There is no way around it: There is a mental health crisis in our counties.

In February, the Pennsylvania District Attorney Associations (PDAA) sent a letter to Gov. Josh Shapiro listing the mental health crisis as one of the top public safety concerns in the state. The district attorneys asked for more resources for the counties to offer mental health services and pledged their willingness to work with state lawmakers to find a solution to the problem.

Every day, prosecutors across Pennsylvania work closely with behavioral health specialists to address the mental health crisis in our counties. Many prosecutors have embraced diversion programs for non-violent crimes where individuals can enroll in a judicially supervised mental health and substance use disorder treatment regimen in lieu of incarceration or standard probation. Diversion programs reduce recidivism, strengthen public safety, and improve the quality of life for participants, and usually at a lower cost than long term incarceration.

However, these programs only work if there are resources available.

Counties need additional funding, more collaboration with state agencies, better integration of behavioral health and substance use disorder treatment, and more local assistance. When resources are constrained, incarcerated individuals with high treatment needs often extend their prison stays waiting for basic services.

Governor Shapiro recognized the need to improve mental health services by creating a Behavioral Health Council to recommend a statewide action plan to address growing community needs. PDAA commends Governor Shapiro for creating the council. However, we need help now.

State lawmakers need to make behavioral health services a priority this budget season and find answers to address the mental health crisis. District attorneys are ready to help.


Nicole W. Ziccarelli is the district attorney of Westmoreland County. She serves on the Board of Directors of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Institute, the educational and training arm of PDAA.