Stepping Up Innovator County Q&A: Berks County, Pennsylvania

October 15, 2019

By The Council of State Governments Justice Center Staff

The Stepping Up initiative reached out to some of its Innovator Counties to find out why they joined Stepping Up and what they’re doing to reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in their jails and #StepUp4MentalHealth.

Name: Edward Michalik
Title: Administrator of the Office of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities
Name of County: Berks County, Pennsylvania
County Population: 417,854
When the County Joined Stepping Up: December 2015

Why did you join the Stepping Up initiative?

Berks County, like many locations across the United States, recognized that we needed to address the issue of individuals with mental illnesses coming into our criminal justice system. These individuals present special challenges for law enforcement: they are more costly to incarcerate; many times their needs are not best served by being in jail; and there is a group of “high utilizers” who consume a disproportionate percentage of resources. To address this issue, Berks County performed a cross-system mapping of our resources, first in 2000 and again in 2015. In 2012, we also initiated a variety of diversion services for this population. To further this work, we joined the Stepping Up initiative in 2015 to raise awareness, educate, and gain support from local community and criminal justice leaders on this issue.

Since joining Stepping Up, what changes have you made to achieve your goal of reducing the prevalence of mental illness in county jail?

We gained a commitment from the district attorney to, whenever possible, work with other partners in the system to divert individuals from jail at various intercepts in the system.

To bolster short-term housing in Berks, we created 17 forensic apartments for individuals involved with the criminal justice system working toward permanent housing.

The Berks County Jail system also implemented enhanced screening processes, increased behavioral health and clinical staff resources, and developed tracking mechanisms for follow-ups on incarcerated individuals who were identified as needing mental health services and treatment or had a prior identified history of such need.

We created a dedicated team that meets monthly to review the needs of all individuals with mental illness that are incarcerated and plan resources for discharge so that those individuals are not reincarcerated.

We secured and implemented the Open Lattice data platform to collect data from various system partners and then use it to analyze information on this target population and drive decisions about existing and future interventions and policies.

How have you addressed barriers to tracking progress toward this goal?

We formed a steering committee to manage the progress of Stepping Up goals. Key stakeholders meet regularly to identify issues before they become critical. The Board of Commissioners and Criminal Justice Advisory Board receive regular reports on this topic.

How does your county plan to continue driving change as an Innovator County?

Berks County, through its Stepping Up Steering Committee and in consultation with our Criminal Justice Advisory Board, is engaged in the following tasks:

  • We are reviewing and analyzing the data that is being collected to make sure that we have good baseline data on people entering and leaving the criminal justice system.
  • We are reviewing and deciding whether to change our definition for serious mental illness.
  • We are determining what our prioritized areas of focus should be, whether length of stay, recidivism, cost, etc.
  • We are using data to examine the policies, programs, services, and resources that are already in place and measure their effectiveness to decide whether to continue them, make adjustments, or try something new.
  • We are identifying and implementing new policies, programs, services, and resources to address prioritized areas determined by the Steering Committee.
  • We have begun to review and analyze data in the Open Lattice Platform over longer time periods to track the impact of policies and programs on these areas.

Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

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People with Mental Illnesses in Jails