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Opinion: Jailing people in mental health crisis hurts all Michiganders

Like many states, Michigan’s models for policing and community mental health need to be strengthened to meet the needs of citizens experiencing a mental or behavioral health crisis, as well as law enforcement officers and hardworking taxpayers.

Fortunately, a handful of innovative community-led partnerships around the nation offer a roadmap for improvement. This year, lawmakers should draw on the experience of those who have gone before us and implement a next-generation pilot program that employs best practices while building on their success with Michigan-centric solutions.

Diana Prichard, Algeria Wilson
Diana Prichard is Community Engagement Director at Americans for Prosperity-Michigan. Algeria Wilson is Director of Public Policy at National Association of Social Workers-Michigan.

Michiganders who experience mental or behavioral health crises too often lack resources to address their challenges and the circumstances that contribute to their condition. When their situation escalates, many end up in high-stress interactions with law enforcement officers either at their own call for help or as the result of a call made by a friend, family member, neighbor, or concerned bystander.

Unfortunately, our men and women in uniform responding to these calls are often put in situations they are neither fully trained for nor equipped to resolve. At best, this diverts law enforcement resources away from preventing and solving crime, making it necessary to reach deeper into taxpayers’ pockets without providing a solution to the problem at hand. At worst, police interactions with people in the middle of a mental health or behavioral crisis escalate, leading to serious injury or a tragic loss of life to the person, the officer, or both.

When officers aren’t able to properly de-escalate a situation, they could have no choice but to take the person in crisis to jail.

The Michigan Jail & Pretrial Task Force has estimated that 23 percent of jail admissions across the state are a result of underlying mental health issues. That increases to 34 percent in our rural jurisdictions, where mental health resources are even more scarce.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

A growing number of communities have implemented innovative partnerships between mental health organizations and law enforcement agencies.

In Eugene, Oregon, representatives from White Bird Clinic have been responding to calls for mental health help for decades. Under their partnership with Eugene Police in a program called CAHOOTS, they’ve been able to take on between 5 percent and 8 percent of the city’s emergency calls. The success of CAHOOTS helped officials realize police sometimes respond to situations that could better be assigned to a qualified mental health professional, such as licensed social workers, and counselors. The qualified mental health professionals provide de-escalation training, crisis stabilization training and local resources.

In Houston, Texas, the Crisis Call Diversion Program redirects calls related to mental health and social service needs to trained counselors who conduct immediate over-the-phone mental health assessments and make connections to needed resources. It has saved the city’s first-response budget an estimated $460,000 per year.

In Maryland, Baltimore Crisis Response dispatches Mobile Crisis Teams comprising mental health specialists, social workers, and nurses. Among other advancements, the program has helped keep nearly 300 people who did not pose a threat to public safety out of prison since 2017.

A successful effort here in Michigan will bring more resources to first responders across the state, allow agencies to better focus their revenue on their mission to serve and protect, and help restore community respect of law enforcement’s critical role in community safety.

Our cops and jails are best positioned to handle people whose crimes pose an immediate, legitimate threat to community safety, but we can do better than jail for fellow Michiganders who are facing a mental health or behavioral crisis and pose no risk to anyone else.

Michigan has an opportunity to lead the nation with a holistic, bottom-up approach that both meets the mental health needs of our fellow citizens and reduces unnecessary burden on our law enforcement agencies, all while saving taxpayers money. We encourage lawmakers to make the Behavioral Health Diversion Fund a priority this budget season.

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Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact David Zeman. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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