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Program aims to keep mentally ill out of jail
Barton County backs national initiative
jail pic
The Barton County Commission Monday morning approved a resolution supporting Stepping Up to reduce the number of people with mental illness in jails. - photo by DALE HOGG Great Bend Tribune

Counties book an estimated 2 million people with serious mental illnesses, most of whom are also addicted to drugs or alcohol, into jail each year. The jails spend more on these adults than on other inmates, taking a massive human and financial toll.  

Hoping to help stem this tide, the Barton County Commission Monday morning approved a resolution supporting Stepping Up Initiative. The resolution joins Barton County to the program with a common goal of reducing the number of people with mental illnesses behind bars. 

“It becomes a revolving door,” said Center for Counseling and Consultation Executive Director Julie Kramp. For about a year, she, Rosewood Services Inc. Executive Director Tammy Hammond and other concerned partners have discussed this problem.

“Everyone was incredibly committed to making things better,” Kramp said. “We were just not sure how to make that happen.”

Then, they came across the Stepping Up Initiative, a joint effort of the Council of State Governments Justice Center, the National Association of Counties and the American Psychiatric Association Foundation. More than 430 counties, including Johnson County in Kansas, in 43 states, representing 40 percent of the U.S. population participate.

Stepping Up engages a diverse group of organizations with expertise on these issues. These incude those representing sheriffs, jail administrators, judges, community corrections professionals, treatment providers, people with mental illnesses and their families, mental health and substance use program directors and other stakeholders.

This is why Kramp went before the commission Monday. “The collaboration (at the local level) needs a broader oversight.”

What is the need?

The numbers are sobering.

Of those with serious mental illnesses admitted to jails across the nation, almost three-quarters of these adults also have drug and alcohol use problems, she said. 

Kramp said those with mental illnesses are incarcerated at rate that is three to six times higher than the rest of the population. They also stay longer, have a higher risk of recidivism and cost two to three times more to keep behind bars.

Although counties have made tremendous efforts, they are often thwarted by significant obstacles, including operating with minimal resources and needing better coordination between criminal justice, mental health, substance use treatment, and other agencies.  

“Without change, large numbers of people with mental illnesses will continue to cycle through the criminal justice system, often resulting in tragic outcomes for these individuals and their families, missed opportunities for connections to treatment, inefficient use of funding, and a failure to improve public safety,” Kramp said.

The idea is to help lessen this burden safely, she said. Stepping Up will help identify those in need, determine what programs and services are available, measure outcomes and track progress. 

“Barton County is not alone in this problem,” commission Chairwoman Jennifer Schartz said. In addition to the human toll, the cost to taxpayers is also great.

This is why it is easy for the county to get behind this program, she said. 

In addition, “we don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Schartz said. All they have to do is tailor Stepping Up to meet local needs.

Program background

Recognizing the critical role local and state officials play in supporting systems change, NACo, the APA and the Justice Center launched the initiative in May 2015. It is a national movement to provide counties with the tools they need to develop data-driven strategies that can lead to measurable results.

With support from public and private entities, the initiative builds on the many innovative and proven practices being implemented across the country, according to information from the Stepping Up website.  

“Stepping Up has made much progress in its first four years,” said NACo President Roy Charles Brooks. “Helping counties build on our accurate data collection and other efforts will move the needle even further.”

Stepping Up counties will receive technical assistance and resources to improve their mental health screening and assessment processes, and strengthen their data collection and tracking so that they can create a system-wide impact. “Understanding the full scope of this problem is essential to help communities develop a comprehensive plan to confront this crisis,” said Dr. Altha Stewart, president-elect of the APA.

“Stepping Up is committed to providing counties with the tools that they need to make a real reduction in the number of people with mental illnesses who are currently involved in the criminal justice system,” Stewart said. “We need to ensure that people with mental illness are getting treatment.”

Barton County Commission meeting at a glance

Here is a quick look at what the Barton County Commission did Monday morning:

• Approved a resolution supporting Stepping Up to Reduce the number of people with mental illness in jails.

• Approved a proclamation honoring October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month 2019.

Domestic violence is a preventable public health problem, said Becky Davis, program director for the Family Crisis Center. It is important that measures be taken to provide domestic violence victims services as about one-quarter of the homicides in Kansas are perpetrated by current or former intimate partners. 

• Approved a proclamation supporting the fall campaign of United Way of Central Kansas. 

The goal of UWCK is to lighten the load of local non-profit organizations by helping to organize the community around shared goals for health, income and education, said Executive Director Gaila Demel. By providing a steady stream of donations to 22 local community partners, the partners can focus on “boots on the ground efforts” rather than fundraising.