Two Steps forward in Efforts to Decriminalize Mental Illness: New York City and Arkansas Set Up Crisis Stabilization Centers

New York City has awarded contracts totaling $90 million to two nonprofit agencies to establish diversion centers providing short-term stays for people with mental illness or substance abuse issues who might otherwise be arrested.   An estimated 2,400 people will be served annually.  (Wall Street Journal: May 11)

The centers will offer counseling, behavioral-health assessments and help with substance abuse.  They will not be available for violent or high-level drug offenders.  As described by a city official in the article, “This is someone who may be exhibiting problems, they may need to talk to somebody, they may be having a particularly bad day.”

Although a welcome effort to help people with mental illness avoid a jail cell and criminal sentence, advocates have identified shortcomings with the approach.  Police officers will be making the decision about eligibility for the centers.  The crisis centers will become a revolving door unless there are long-term supports, said the director of behavioral health at the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

Arkansas’s investment in crisis stabilization centers is much smaller ($5 million), but the centers are part of a major reform effort in the state.  Legislators and officials worked with the Council of State Governments (CSG) staff to address the financial and social problems of a rapidly increasing prison population.  Click here to read the report on Arkansas’s justice reinvestment approach.

Act 423, passed by the state legislature in March 2017 and signed by the governor, limits the period of incarceration for people sanctioned for low-level violations of their parole; requires training for law enforcement officers in how to respond to people with a mental health crisis, and creates local crisis stabilization centers that enable law enforcement officers to divert people with low-level offenses away from county jails to receive mental health treatment in the community.

The legislation is expected to reduce the projected growth in the prison population by nearly 10 percent and avert hundreds of millions of dollars in prison construction and operating costs.

Governor Asa Hutchinson (R) said of Act 423.  “We have neglected the mental health challenges in our nation for too long.  Through the creation of these crisis stabilization units, this bill will provide much-needed assistance to those suffering from mental illnesses and also provide relief to our law enforcement officers who so often have to deal with incidents involving those who need help rather than detention.”

The League of Women Voters of Dane County is encouraging the county board of supervisors to consider crisis stabilization centers and other diversion methods as part of its review of the next version of the Mead & Hunt recommendations about the jail.

Unfortunately, these steps forward are occurring at the same time as a giant retreat in Washington, D.C.   Click here to read a story in the Washington Post (May 13) that describes Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ directive to federal prosecutors to “pursue the most severe penalties possible, including mandatory minimum sentences, in his first step toward a return to the war on drugs of the 1980s and 1990s that resulted in long sentences for many minority defendants and packed U.S. prisons.”



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