State officials should stop dragging their feet and take strong action to stop the growing number of deaths from suicide and drug overdose among inmates in county jails.

So far this year, according to a recent report from Disability Rights NC, 17 inmates have killed themselves in jails in the state, up from 12 the year before. The rate of deaths from drug overdoses has been climbing, too, with the latest available numbers showing 11 in 2018 as compared to four in 2017. North Carolina’s death rate among inmates is higher than the national average.

It’s not that nobody has tried to take action. A few counties have come up with their own new strategies for handling prisoners.

On the state level, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Division of Health Service Regulation proposed a list of rules designed to save lives, but before they could take effect last year, the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association and a number of individual sheriffs raised objections that caused a delay.

Now the proposed rules are supposed to take effect after the General Assembly opens for business next spring — that is, if no legislators try to stall them.

The sheriffs are objecting to several of the rules. Some, they say, are unclear. Others, they say, go too far, beyond the authority of the Division of Health Service Regulation. In some cases, the sheriffs want more flexibility for such decisions as when staff must check on an inmate in person and when it’s OK to use monitors.

Sure, some of the rules could probably use tweaking and maybe more input from those who deal with inmates regularly. But the need for change is obvious, and the general idea of the rules sounds reasonable. They include such things as better screening of new prisoners for physical and mental health problems, more reliable checks on inmates’ welfare, and suicide-prevention programs.

These deaths tend to follow a sad pattern. Most of the deaths from drug overdoses happen within the first 24 hours a prisoner is locked up. Many are another terrible aspect of the devastating opioid epidemic. Often, people in fear of being arrested take all the drugs they have rather than face charges for having them. Careful screening before locking them up could save lives.

Most suicides happen within the first 12 days a person is in jail, and many are related to mental health problems that could be managed better if jail staff is aware of them. Because many mental institutions have closed, more mentally ill people wind up in jail, and many aren’t able to cope with the situation.

It’s too easy to say that people who wind up in jail deserve what they get, and that the state has more pressing needs than coddling inmates. The reality is that most prisoners who commit suicide or die of an overdose haven’t been to trial yet, and we’re supposed to consider them innocent unless and until they are proved otherwise.

That’s supposed to be the American way.

Another reality is that even if they are proved guilty of some offense, it’s unlikely to be one that would carry a death penalty. Many of the people who die in jail are suffering from addiction or mental illness and need help more than punishment.

Rules can be modified if need be, but lives can’t be restored. It’s past time to make these changes.

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