WESTBOROUGH, MA July 6, 2017 Jail diversion is a hot topic across the country. The numbers of persons incarcerated for minor offenses and drug crimes has grown. Many of these individuals have mental illness or drug abuse in addition to their criminality. The interaction between poly-substance abuse or dependence and exacerbation of underlying mental health symptoms is complex. It is the focus of mental health advocates and criminal justice experts nationwide as it pertains to jail diversion and reduced use of force among law enforcement. In Massachusetts, there is a move away from mandatory minimum sentences for all drug crimes except for those involving the distribution of narcotics. Arguably, the impact on behavioral functioning when persons are gripped with co-occurring illness is a recurrent problem for law enforcement and first responders. I have written about the impact of co-occurring illness such as alcoholism on mental and behavioral health is previously published posts here on Word press Human Behavior (Sefton, 2017). It is difficult to uncover which comes first – the addiction or the diagnosed mental illness and yet they are inextricably linked in terms of the strain on public resources and health risk to those so afflicted. Why is this important?
The importance of treatment for substance dependence and mental illness cannot be understated as violent encounters between law enforcement and the mentally ill have been regularly sensationalized. The general public is looking for greater public safety while at the same time MH advocates insist that with the proper treatment violent police encounters may be reduced and jail diversion may be achieved. The referral infrastructure to provide a continuum of care in this growing population is available in very few places across America.
Models of Care
Yet in places like Bexar County, Texas the county jail population has dropped by over 20 percent as a result of crisis intervention training for police officers and mobile mental health teams to intervene with those in crisis. I have seen this for myself during a visit with the San Antonio Police Department where I rode with two members of the Mental Health Unit – Officers Ernest Stevens and Joseph Smarro. It takes training, medical and psychiatric infrastructure, community compassion, and active engagement with members of the community often left to fly under the radar to effectively reduce the jail population. When necessary those most in need must have 24-hour availability for detoxification, emergency mental health, and access to basic needs such as food, clothing, and medicine. In San Antonio they offer so much more including pre-employment training, extended housing, interview preparation including clothes, and opportunity for jobs.
Behavioral Analysis and Law Enforcement
The unpredictability of behavior in those who carry a “dual” diagnosis has emerged in the criminal justice system when jail diversion programs and treatment options are brought forth raising the specter of frustration over the limitations within the system. Cities everywhere are grappling with how best to intervene with the mentally ill in terms of alternative restitution for drug-related misdemeanor crimes in lieu of mandatory jail sentences that many crimes currently require. Some believe, as much as 20-40 percent of all incarcerated persons suffer with mental health diagnoses and are not getting the treatment they require. To provide a bare bones system would add billions to state and federal dollars spent on the needs of inmates at a time when measurable outcomes for in house care are limited.
In my practice I see many cases of co-occurring pain syndromes with other physical debility such as stroke or traumatic brain injury. Generally the emotional impact of two or more diagnosed illnesses yields a greatly reduced capacity for adaptive coping and puts a great stress on the individual system. The importance of addressing co-occurring substance abuse or dependence is now well recognized and with treatment can result in healthy decision-making, growth in maturity, and greater self-awareness. If legislators have a serious desire to reduce statewide numbers of incarcerated persons a comprehensive plan must be considered for both pre-arrest and post-arrest. Infrastructure for enhanced understanding of addiction and greater treatment options must be explored through a joint public and private initiative.
PROPOSED JAIL DIVERSION INITIATIVE
PRE-ARREST JAIL DIVERSION – No crime committed
If police encounter subjects with a known history of mental illness through their community policing efforts they should return the subject to his family or primary psychiatric caregiver – this might be a physician, physician’s assistant (PA), a nurse practitioner (NP), even a psychologist for immediate crisis intervention. Depending upon the nature of the police encounter such as during the nighttime hours the subject may be transported to a local emergency department for psychiatric evaluation. This model has grown less popular because of the growing wait times in local hospital emergency departments – especially for those suspected of mental illness and tends to make them increasingly agitated. Persons with mental illness are often homeless and come into police contact simply on the basis of panhandling or looking suspicious and out of place in the neighborhood. Often they are reported to police because they are talking to themselves, suspicious, and menacing toward pedestrians making them afraid.
The hospital alternative might be to establish regional psychiatric emergency intake centers available 24-hours daily. At one point states had regional hospitals that have been closed down releasing thousands of institutionalized patients into the community. The plan for de-institutionalization was to provide a neighborhood center at which the patient could continue his or her treatment and receive their needed medication to keep them symptom free.
Minor crime committed
When a crime is committed by someone with known or suspected mental illness such as simple assault, disorderly conduct, or shoplifting the responding police officer’s will have discretion whether to bring forth charges or not in exchange for an alternative disposition that would defer jail time. These are not new concepts. Law enforcement has always had the discretion to arrest or not arrest for many minor offenses. The choice often comes down to the subject demeanor and his response to police officer directives at the time of the encounter. In some cases an officer must arrest such as in the setting of domestic violence, child abuse, or as a result of a felony being committed.
In these cases charges may be brought and held as long as the subject entered treatment or remained abstinent from use of drugs or alcohol – the jail diversion plan. If they failed to follow the terms of their diversion plan the charges would be re-instated and sent to district attorney for prosecution. The alternative is a revolving door of addiction and petty crime that, at times, will escalate into violent crime. As a society more can be done to reduce criminality and jail diversion through empathic, sensitive treatment options.