Idaho County Continues Steps to Address Mental Health

February 1, 2017

Post Register

By Tom Holm

For some the Bonneville County Jail can be a revolving door.

Most offenders who commit a misdemeanor crime get locked up for a few days and then released after their first court hearing.

But inmates with mental health issues often will be released from jail only to wind up right back behind bars. They continue a cycle of going into crisis where law enforcement gets involved, they go to jail, and the scenario repeats itself.

Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Sam Hulse said there are an “inordinate amount of people,” with mental illness in local jails.

“Sometimes we think ‘Well if they’re in jail at least they’re safe,’” Hulse said. “But if we want to improve our system then we need to make sure the people who need treatment, get treatment.”

With that in mind, Hulse convened numerous local officials to meet and identify ways to solve the problem utilizing a national program aimed at reducing mental illness in the jail population.

Hulse said the jail population has been ballooning. On average between 400 and 500 people are incarcerated each month. The same number are released, on average. Hulse said there were 70 jail stays for people with mental health issues in July and 218 in October. Many of the individuals counted are the same people coming in and out of jail, Hulse said, so the tallies can contain duplicates. Hulse estimated this makes up about 20 percent of the jail population.

The number of inmates placed in special housing at the jail, which often overlaps with those who have mental illness, also is growing.

On average about 30 people are in special housing at the jail per day. This can mean the inmate needs to be separated from other inmates for being a threat to themselves or others. Or it can mean the inmate requires special attention due to a mental health issue.

These inmates require extra care and intervention to try to keep them out of jail.

Idaho incarcerates those with serious mental illnesses at a more than 4 to 1 ratio compared to hospitalization, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center. Nearly 40,000 Idahoans have a serious mental illness as reported by the National Institute on Mental Health in 2015.

Bonneville County has been lauded for its efforts to aid those with mental illness. There are numerous agencies and resources available to help people experiencing a mental health crisis.

The Sheriff’s Office routinely offers crisis intervention training to its deputies to teach them to help de-escalate individuals in crisis. The Behavioral Health Crisis Center of East Idaho takes in voluntary committals and provides care and direction for people who need help. The county hosts multiple problem-solving courts aimed at reducing recidivism and reforming offenders.

But there’s always room for improvement.

Bonneville County became the first in the state to join the The Stepping Up Initiative. The national program sponsored by the American Psychiatric Association Foundation, National Association of Counties and Council of State Governments Justice Center aims to reduce the number of inmates with mental illness locked up in jail. Each year an estimated 2 million people with serious mental illness are incarcerated in local jails across the U.S.

The program has identified areas where local governments can cooperate with available resources to help those with mental illness exit the revolving door of incarceration.

Kati Habert manages Stepping Up and is behavioral health division deputy program director at the Council of State Governments Justice Center. Habert said the initiative launched in May 2015, and as of Wednesday, 323 counties across the U.S. had passed resolutions supporting the program.

Bonneville County Commissioners passed a resolution supporting the initiative Oct. 11.

Habert said the initiative does not provide funding to counties who enroll but has strategies built in to the program to help local officials identify where funds are perhaps being duplicated and how to reallocate money.

“The strategies are used to look at data and where county governments should be making investments in a more targeted way to pinpoint gaps,” Habert said.

Hulse said this is not a “one-size-fits-all program.” But it provides steps called modules, designed to point organizations in the right direction to help those with mental illness. The modules were created following evidence-based research into improving resources, Habert said.

Hulse, who has been a local force for expanding services to those with mental health problems, has organized representatives for attorneys, judges, jail administrators, probation and parole, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and mental health experts to meet and identify where people are slipping through the cracks.

The Sheriff’s Office has a good handle on the front end, where those with mental illness commit a crime and are confronted by law enforcement. Numerous deputies are trained in empathetically dealing with subjects and knowing how to de-escalate a mental health crisis. They can also direct the individuals to resources in the area if a crime has not been committed.

Plans are in motion to help reduce the numbers jailed in special housing. Hulse is coordinating with misdemeanor pretrial services, which functions similar to probation and parole, to create a position designated to aid individuals with mental health issues. The position, still in the planning phases, would help the individuals make appointments and ensure necessary services are being achieved.

There has to be a certain amount of buy-in from the individuals as well. The criminal justice system can hold the threat of jail sanctions overhead to have these people comply with gaining services. But it only works if the person wants help.

The jail has been referring individuals directly to the Behavioral Health Crisis Center since it opened in December 2014. Capt. Brian Covert said his jail deputies understand those with mental illness need special care while incarcerated, but just as important is creating a path for success once released.

Hulse said the program is gaining steam and area representatives seem to welcome tweaks to the system.

“This isn’t just a one-time thing,” Hulse said. “Continued training is necessary, it needs to be consistent and ongoing.”

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