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Jail Diversion talk in Champaign County

Apr 29, 2014 | Stacy

Leon Evans, head of a San Antonio program that provides mental health and substance abuse services to at risk community members was the guest speaker at a Champaign County public meeting hosted by the Mental Health Board and the county sheriff’s office on April 23. Build Programs Not Jails campaign volunteers provided a summary of the meeting.

Leon Evans, head of a San Antonio program that provides mental health and substance abuse services to at risk community members was the guest speaker at a Champaign County public meeting hosted by the Mental Health Board and the county sheriff’s office on April 23. Build Programs Not Jails campaign volunteers provided a summary of the meeting.

More than one hundred community members attended a public meeting of the Champaign County Mental Health Board and Sheriff’s Department on April 23.  Invited speaker, Leon Evans presented on “Jail Diversion Models for People with Mental Illnesses and Substance Use Disorders.”  Mr. Evans is the president and CEO of the Center for Health Care Services in Bexar County, Texas (in San Antonio) and also currently serves on their Mental Health Board. He and many others in Bexar County have been working since 2000 to put into place a comprehensive program, the goal of which is to reduce the cost to tax-payers of local law enforcement and the justice system and simultaneously to provide more and better care to the communities most at risk of becoming involved with that system, including those facing homelessness, mental health issues, and drug and alcohol problems. Through community collaboration, they have put together a community-based program that covers these issues and others. Mr. Evans’ presentation described many facets of this comprehensive program, almost all of which have been previously discussed/proposed/considered by the members of CUCPJ.

The first contact many have with this program is, as you would expect, an encounter with the police. Their goal is that every member of their police department have 40 hours of training in de-escalation techniques as well as in recognizing the signs, symptoms and behaviors that indicate mental health problems. For 20 of these hours the participants are engaged in role-playing activities. (After a question from Aaron Ammons, Mr. Evans said that their police department does have tasers, but that they are not even issued to officers until they have successfully completed this training. He added that even jail staff are now taking this training.)

If, after an encounter for a minor offense, the officer finds that the individuals need health, mental health, or detox evaluation, they are immediately delivered to the Restoration Center – what we would perhaps call a Community Health Resource Center – where they can be further evaluated and begin to receive services and treatment. The availability of this Center drastically reduces the time a police officer needs to dedicate to these individuals – often repeat offenders – thus reducing costs to the police department, the jail, and the court system. The Restoration Center in Bexar County is currently located in the same building as the Convenient Care Center, so that minor medical problems can also be addressed. Clients can also receive help in accessing a medical insurance program, and/or further medical care, if needed.  This was called the one-stop shopping approach.

Other components of this integrated, collaborative-care treatment program are the several specialty courts in place within the County Court system. In cooperation with numerous service agencies and the justice system, they now have special justice units for veterans, for those with mental health issues, for those with drug abuse problems, as well as juveniles.  The judges in these courts have several other options in addition to jail time for minor offenders, and have the discretion to look past some crimes. Mr Evans referred to this as the “black robe” solution, where someone who may have repeatedly declined or dropped out of treatment gets the added incentive of jail time if they do not participate in the treatment program outlined for them.

He also described another component of the program, the homeless campus. This has separate men’s and women’s dormitories, and those who wish to live there must sign a “no drugs or alcohol” pledge, and commit to working an 8 hour day, usually in jobs which help with the maintenance and upkeep of the campus.  He reported that this and the other programs have significantly reduced the recidivism rate in Bexar County.

Throughout the talk and the following question and answer session, Mr. Evans repeatedly emphasized several points. This system was not put in place all at once. Instead, little by little, the community came together for one element of the program, then another. He stressed the need to prioritize projects so that some progress can be made now, with more made later, when time, money, and public Will allowed. Community involvement and a collaborative spirit are key. He also emphasized the need for thorough data collection- keeping track of costs as well as outcomes and side effects of all aspects of the programs- in order to illustrate the cost-saving and cost-avoidance nature of these programs. This, of course, is an argument which will appeal to all segments of the political spectrum. For funding, he suggested investigating grants, generous donors, and diverting some of the tax money saved from the police, incarceration, and justice departments into the community services.

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