Editorial: We have failed our mentally ill sisters and brothers

Editorial Board • Feb 22, 2019 at 12:19 PM

As we expected, Albert Toronjo has been sent to jail when he should have been placed in a mental rehabilitation facility.

Toronjo, 68, of Kingsport, has been harassing women for years. He’s been arrested multiple times and has spent time in prison. Since June 2014, Kingsport police have issued multiple warnings about Toronjo and his antics. He was alleged to have systematically targeted the elderly and recently widowed, making unwelcome visits to their homes and making sexual advances. Sometimes he would pose as a handyman looking for work.

In September 2014, Toronjo entered guilty pleas to a variety of misdemeanor charges, all related to the harassment of females in Sullivan County. He was released from jail in January 2016, but within two weeks Kingsport police warned that he was at it again, and by August 2017 Toronjo had been arrested four times in Kingsport.

Then in April of last year he made his first apparent venture into Hawkins County, where he was arrested after allegedly knocking on women’s doors repeatedly. Toronjo’s Sullivan County charges were later bound over to a grand jury.

He recently appeared in court, where he pleaded guilty to five counts of aggravated stalking and was sentenced to 4½ years in prison. He waived alternative sentencing and will be eligible for parole at some point in time. 

Clearly, Toronjo has issues that will not be fully addressed in a jail cell. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, some 2 million mentally ill persons are booked into jails annually, with 15 percent of incarcerated men and 30 percent of incarcerated women suffering a serious mental health condition. Once in jail, many individuals in need of mental health treatment don’t get it, and those who do and are released no longer have access to any care and their conditions deteriorate. The alliance estimates that 83 percent of inmates with a mental illness are not treated.

This all results from a failed policy that began in the 1960s to move mental health patients out of state-run facilities and into federally funded community mental health centers to cut costs. Between 1955 and 1994, a half million mentally ill patients were discharged from state hospitals, which were then closed.

As a result, the alliance states, some 2.2 million severely mentally ill do not receive any psychiatric treatment, about 200,000 who suffer from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are homeless, representing about a third of the total homeless population, and more than 300,000 are in jails and prisons. Sixteen percent of all inmates are severely mentally ill, and there are more than three times as many seriously mentally ill people in jails and prisons than in hospitals.

De-institutionalization gave the mentally ill some rights, but most released from state facilities were not good candidates for community centers, and that continues to hold true. Today, they are shoved aside, denied the care they need. They wander the streets, or as with Toronjo, engage in behavior regardless of consequences and are repeatedly sent to jail in a cycle that doesn’t benefit them, nor society.

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