Thinking Outside the Silo: Collaborative Discussion on Criminal Justice, Mental Health Systems

Most of us never have to worry about having a warrant out for our arrest. But if we do forget to pay that traffic fine, the warrant we get in the mail usually grabs our attention. Message received. Fine paid.

For those with a serious mental illness, the issue isn’t that simple. Although most do not have brushes with the law, some do, usually for minor violations like disturbing the peace or trespassing. Once cited, they’re at the mercy of a process that has not historically distinguished between people with mental illness and true criminals. Part of that process involves penalties for not sticking to schedules. If the warrant fails to get your attention, you could end up in jail.

The question is: How can our criminal justice and mental health systems work together to reduce the number of people with mental illness in jail? This question framed the discussion last month during a day-long workshop facilitated by the GAINS Center for Behavioral Health and Justice Transformation, a division of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The workshop, held at Wyandot Center, was designed to identify the opportunities for diverting someone with a mental illness away from Wyandotte County’s criminal justice system and into mental health treatment. Many local dignitaries attended. In the same room talking with and learning from each other we had Mayor Joe Reardon, Commissioner Mark Holland, Sheriff Don Ash, Police Chief Rick Armstrong, District Judge Kate Lynch and Municipal Court Judges Maurice Ryan and Aaron Roberts. Key administrators from the District Attorney’s office, Police Department, Sheriff’s office, substance use organizations, and community corrections were also there, as were several key members of our staff.

Their task, with help from the GAINS Center, was to identify where our biggest “gaps” are in the criminal justice and mental health systems and how we can best fill those gaps. The GAINS Center report won’t be out for a week so. In the meantime, to give you an example of what the day looked like, listen to Wyandot case manager Jeff Robinson.

Jeff works on Wyandot’s supportive housing team. He’s often working with people who were formerly homeless, people who have difficulty finding and holding a job, who may have been homeless for so long that basic domestic responsibilities are a challenge.

And he works with people who periodically get arrested. Maybe they were looking for a place to stay warm and refused to leave the downtown McDonald’s. Maybe they got into a shouting match with a police officer. Once cited for an offense, they’re ordered to appear in the Unified Government’s municipal court. That date might be three to four weeks away–enough time for someone with a serious mental illness to possibly lose sight of the consequences of not showing up.

Maybe, as Jeff noted, the person has poor tracking skills. Maybe she’s hearing voices that tell her not to go. Maybe paranoia sets in. “When I think of going into a courtroom filled with police, I may get scared,” Jeff said, imagining the consumer’s perspective. If Jeff sees “FTA” on a consumer’s docket–“failure to appear”–he takes note. “For me, that’s a red flag, and it needs to be taken care of immediately.”

When someone skips a court date, events can quickly spiral out of control. A warrant is just the beginning. A stay in the county jail typically follows. If that stay is beyond 30 days, the benefits that help someone with a mental illness recover may be in jeopardy. Disability, Medicaid, employment services–all would have to be reapplied for once the person is released from jail.

As Jeff sees it, one way to prevent these FTAs from coming back to haunt people with mental illness is to create a “municipal court liaison,” someone who would be responsible for shepherding people through the court process, keeping tabs of their dates, making sure they show up for them, reminding them to pay fines on time, and working with the court, if necessary, to bring those fines down. If they’ve never received services at Wyandot, the liaison would connect them with those services.

The priority, as Jeff says, is clear: “Keeping non-violent, mentally ill people out of jail, and in treatment.”

Not only is this the right thing to do for the consumer, it makes sense economically. Jail costs go down, fewer emergency resources are required and more efficiencies are created. As long as Wyandotte County continues to address this challenge as a community, and not in silos, I’m confident that we’ll be doing the right thing for all involved.

This post originally appeared in the September 2012 eNewsletter from Wyandot Inc., republished with permission.

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