Montgomery County Council members want to set up an alternate court for nonviolent criminals with mental illnesses, saying those inmates don't receive enough treatment behind bars and drain the cash-strapped county with each trip back to jail.

But law enforcement and court officials say they don't have the money or resources to start up a specialized docket in the affluent suburb.

Prisoners with mental illnesses make up nearly a quarter of the county's jail population, according to health officials, and are more prone to be repeat offenders and less likely to be placed on probation than others charged with similar crimes.

By sending offenders to treatment centers rather than jail, supporters contend prison-return rates would drop and save the county money in the long run.

"The status quo is expensive," said Councilman George Leventhal, D-at large. "When they're incarcerated, you have to house them. You have to feed them. You have to clothe them. I imagine it's more expensive than treatment. But we're not making progress with the law-enforcement side of the coin."

Montgomery judicial officials have balked at the proposal, calling it too large of an investment for a court that would serve only a few dozen out of several hundred inmates with mental illnesses. In Prince George's County -- which employs one of the 175 mental health courts nationwide -- the court is scheduled two full days a week and served 438 people last year.

Under the system, nonviolent offenders would participate in court-supervised, community treatment centers in lieu of criminal sanctions.

But even supporters were wary about the impact on public safety.

Councilman Marc Elrich, D-at large, said the program needed "more supervision than a 'promise me you'll take these pills every morning.'"

Correctionalofficials were not able to provide estimates Monday of savings tied to a mental health court but said it costs about $100 a day to house each prisoner.

Among the 9,965 admissions to county jail last fiscal year, more than 1,400 were psychiatric referrals, 866 of whom received medicine for mental issues and 124 with a history of self-injury behavior, according to county figures.