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'Stepping Up' Cites Gains In Cutting Jailings In Mental Illness, Drug Cases

Since its launch in 2015, an initiative called Stepping Up has worked to reduce the overincarceration of people with mental illnesses and substance use disorders.

The partnership between The Council of State Governments Justice Center, the National Association of Counties, and the American Psychiatric Association Foundation says it has been able to engage more than 550 counties across the U.S. in reforming justice and behavioral systems and reducing racial disparities.

Over the past seven years, Stepping Up communities have been assisted by a data driven framework to provide different approaches. The counties have worked to reduce citizen contact with law enforcements and lower the booking of individuals with mental illnesses into jail.

In a webinar Seven Years of Stepping Up, experts from three counties praised Stepping Up for its ability to connect community responder programs, law enforcement and mental health providers in aiding vulnerable residents.

Director Karhlton Moore of the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Assistance, which funds the initiative, cited the role of data in Stepping Up's success, " Data provides communities with the ability to quantify the number of people with serious mental illnesses in the justice system and to identify the policy and program improvements to address these needs," he said.

Counties that have established  baseline data  suggested reduction targets for four key measures: the number of people booked into jail who have serious mental illnesses, their average length of stay in jail, the percentage of people who are connected to treatment, and their recidivism rates.

Moore said the availability of data allows counties to offer different alternatives to lower jail populations and help provide better behavioral health care responses.

People with complex mental health needs enter jails at higher rates than others and tend to stay significantly longer. This puts them at a higher risk of returning to jail than those without mental health conditions.

Sheriff Kelly Rowe of Lubbock County, Tx., said jails operate as the nation's "de facto mental institutions." He said that nearly half of inmates have received some level of mental health services at some time in their life.

Rowe said his facility contracts with a local mental health provider that is available 24 hours a day to assess prisoners. This, along with other resources, allows for proper care and staff awareness.

Lisa Potter, director of diversion initiatives in Fairfax County, Va., said data collected for the program allows her to see both successes and gaps that can lead to quality improvements.

As part of the initiative, Fairfax signed on to a program called "Set, Measure, Achieve" to "advance the goal of reducing the prevalence of the behavioral health population in jails."

From 2015 to 2021, there has been a 35 percent decrease in the jail behavioral health population charged with misdemeanor. The reductions started before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ruchelle Pride, Director of Justice Policy and Programs in Franklin County, Oh., said her office is focusing on advancing goals to achieve racial equity. She said racism is a root cause of poverty, bad health, and broken families.

The county's program emphasizes the need for better data collection efforts to help act as a guide in decision making. Data reports include length of stay in case processing, race inequities in arrests, bond trends and population and demographic density.


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