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County commission resolves to ‘Step Up’ for mentally ill offenders

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published February 15, 2016

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OAKLAND COUNTY — It’s been more than 10 years that the Oakland County Community Mental Health Authority has been working with law enforcement officers around the county as part of its pre-booking jail diversion program.

But recently, the county made its effort official with a resolution to continue training that keeps nonviolent misdemeanor offenders with mental illnesses or developmental disabilities out of jail.

On Jan. 20, the Oakland County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted to approve a resolution in support of the national Stepping Up initiative. The program is designed to be a national collaboration between law enforcement agencies and mental health advocates to avoid jail time, when possible, for appropriate offenders and instead provide them with needed treatment and resources.

“As we looked at the criteria to join Stepping Up, it became very evident that Oakland County already had a number of successful programs that promote alternatives to jail for individuals with a mental illness, making this an ideal partnership,” said Commissioner Shelley Goodman Taub in a prepared statement. “From providing crisis intervention training for local law enforcement to jail diversion efforts, we continue to implement changes that establish lasting improvements systemwide.”

It was nearly a year ago that the county received a grant from the Michigan Department of Community Health to train 80 Oakland County sheriff’s deputies to respond specifically to mental health situations as part of the Crisis Intervention Team.

Prior to the formation of CIT, around 221 qualified offenders had avoided jail time through pre-booking diversions in 2014 — that’s when officers bring a nonviolent offender into custody and, with training, identify a mental health situation and refer the individual to an appropriate agency, like Common Ground in Bloomfield Hills.

The highest number of pre-booking diversions until recently was 359 in 2012. But thanks to CIT, the number of individuals spared from incarceration in 2015 was the highest yet so far.

“Pre-booking jail diversion bypasses the criminal justice system altogether,” said Holloway, jail diversion coordinator with OCCMHA. “After that grant, which funded 40 hours of that specialized crisis intervention training, we saw that it almost doubled pre-booking jail diversions. So far this fiscal year, we’re on good pace to match that.”

The effort is not only effective for the mentally ill or developmentally disabled offender who will get the resources needed for better health — it’s a financial help to the county.

“Mentally ill inmates tend to have a longer jail stay than those without a mental illness,” said Lisa Dunn, OCCMHA community liaison for planning and community development, who noted that the average cost of housing an inmate at the Oakland County Jail is currently about $113 per day.

In addition to overseeing pre-booking jail diversion programming, OCCMHA also provides post-booking services to mentally ill and developmentally disabled inmates to potentially reduce the length of their stay and provide them with care they’ll need upon release.

“The Oakland County Community Mental Health Authority is instrumental in that — we pay for the services in the jail. They’re funded by community mental health and typically initiated by community mental health,” said Dunn. “I don’t think a lot of people, or even law enforcement, know we’re paying for the psychologists in the jail.”

Dunn stressed OCCMHA’s contribution to the jail diversion program and other initiatives, since the agency continues to advocate with legislators over the reallocation of Medicaid funds from high-traffic community mental health authorities like theirs to other, less-in-demand agencies in an effort to make funding more uniform across the state — a practice that’s been dubbed rebasing.

Holloway said that there’s currently a plan to implement a permanent CIT training program at the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office so the work can continue once the state grant expires next year. Dunn added that Oakland County has applied to participate in a national summit this April in Washington, D.C., to meet with other leaders from counties across the nation with exemplary jail diversion programs.

“Every time an officer utilizes his training and (an inmate) is referred directly to mental health services, that doesn’t cost anything and the taxpayers are saving money with that,” said Holloway.