We are talking about mental illness and a new national initiative called “Stepping Up: A National Initiative to Reduce the Number of People with Mental Illnesses in Jails.” The initiative asks county and city governments across the country to commit to finding effective ways to handle detainees with mental illness.
Clearly, holding detainees while they wait for treatment beds to open up is not the best answer. But just building new treatment facilities for suspected and convicted criminals is not the answer either. Stepping Up asks the county or city to find innovative ways to reduce the human suffering — and the hit their budgets — and to improve outcomes all around. Then, they are asked to share their results with other communities.
Stepping Up provides the tools, and the county does the work. According to its website, the program uses “a common data-driven process that can encourage innovation and bring good work to scale.” (Bringing something “to scale” means the knowledge is shared globally, ostensibly to the point where duplication is eliminated and true innovation can occur.)
When a county or city commits to the program, the program commits “to provide coordinated support to counties to help people living with mental illnesses stay out of jail and on a path to recovery.” Unfortunately, that’s as specific as it gets.
Participants say that mental health courts and diversion programs are among the projects undertaken. The U.S. Department of Justice has identified a few areas in need of improvement, including community-based treatment, crisis intervention by police and reentry planning.
North Carolina has a diversion program that links detainees with community mental health services without risking public safety. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, these programs help people with a serious mental illness that have been detained on a minor charge. Someone held in connection with a violent crime would likely not qualify. The department notes that jail diversion programs are not available in every county.
Neither are mental health courts. We’ll explain more, and wrap this up, in our next post.