Moving Forward By Stepping Up – By Bill Hall, Curtis Landers and Steve Sparks
County Commissioner Bill Hall, Sheriff Curtis Landers and Stepping Up program consultant Steve Sparks teamed up a year ago to launch an effort that’s beginning to transform the way Lincoln County deals with mentally ill and addicted citizens. By adopting the Stepping Up program, Lincoln County seeks to fundamentally change the way it deals with people with mental illness and addiction issues within the justice system. And the results are expected to be far reaching.
In early 2015, the American Psychiatric Association, Council of State Governments and National Association of Counties came together to launch Stepping Up. They shined a spotlight on the fact that jails and prisons have become the default holding facilities nationswide for people with mental illness and addiction problems. It’s estimated that more than two million Americans are behind bars primarily because of behavioral health challenges.
Where did this hugely expensive problem evolve into a national crisis? Here’s just a few of the reasons:
City and county jails are not equipped to deal with this population. Addicts and mentally troubled people don’t get better behind bars – in fact they get worse. And because of that, this group tends to get stuck in the system, with longer stays and often for relatively minor offenses. Also, it makes it more difficult to keep more serious offenders in jail because the process produces a shortage of beds. It drains public resources, in both the correctional and health care systems, as these people cycle through the system again and again, displacing more serious offenders.
And Lincoln County is right in the middle of this coast-to-coast vicious cycle.
The Lincoln County Jail holds 161 people. At any given time, about 30 percent of these inmates have a diagnosed mental illness, and about a third of this group are severely and chronically mentally ill. This 30% does not include those suffering addictions. And their numbers are growing. Yet the total number of jail beds are capped, so that themore serious offenders are released early, long before their sentences are fully served. It is more and more obvious that a primary goal should not be to increase the number of jail beds, but to reduce those numbers by not filling them with the mentally ill and those with addiction problems.
Lincoln County has been analyzing this dilemma for quite a while. County officials created a mental health subcommittee under the Local Public Safety Coordinating Council more than ten years ago. The county has a Mental Health Court and a jail counselor and the county has received a grant to establish mobile mental health crisis services. All of these are positive steps, but county officials contend a lot more needs to be done.
In October of 2016, Lincoln County Commissioners adopted the Stepping Up resolution, which formally made Lincoln County part of a national effort to get a handle on a long festering problem. As of this writing, 389 counties across the country have adopted the resolution involving more than a third of the total population in the United States. Sixteen of Oregon’s 36 counties are on board.
Giving people in the justice system better tools to deal with mental illness is one of our priorities. All members of the Sheriff’s Office and Community Corrections have completed Mental Health First Aid training, a one-day course designed to give everyone tools to recognize and assist in a mental health crisis. The Sheriff’s Office is also accelerating its Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training for patrol and corrections deputies. CIT is a week-long course designed to give officers tools to de-escalate an inmate crisis.
At the end of August, more than three dozen county workers involved in criminal justice and public safety, along with a number of community partners in treatment, social services, the faith community and peers, came together for a day and a half-long “Sequential Intercept Mapping Exercise” (SIM). Lincoln County was among 54 counties that applied to undergo this workshop at no charge this year. Officials say this is a testament to Lincoln County’s level of community commitment and readiness.
At the SIM workshop, participants assessed the current system at six key points where people with behavioral health issues can get caught up in the criminal justice system, identify critical gaps in services, and develop action plans to address high priority issues.
The four priorities that emerged deal with establishing stronger pre-arrest diversions, setting up pre-trial services to provide support to people released pending trial and to hold them accountable, a more formalized re-entry system if it becomes necessary and the integration of peer services at every stage of the process.
Lincoln County officials say they have made amazing progress just in the first year – yet they admit their work has just begun. However, they contend they are quite confident they’ll achieve their goals due to a tremendously high level of buy-in among partners and stakeholders who are devoted to the process.
Program officials say they have heard too many stories of families, careers and lives shattered by mental illness and addictions. Sometimes it’s a co-worker, sometimes it’s a neighbor, sometimes a family member. Families and communities everywhere have suffered far too long, they say. They maintain that it’s up to us as citizens to step up and finally end the cycle of repeatedly damaging lives instead of healing them.