The Stepping Up Initiative: Program Aims to Reduce the Number of People with Mental Illnesses in Jails

February 5, 2017

American Press

By Marilyn Monroe

Stepping Up, a national initiative launched in May 2015, aims to reduce the number of people with mental health illnesses in jails across the country.

According to the initiative’s website, about 2 million people with serious mental illnesses are imprisoned each year — three-fourths of them suffering from both mental health and substance abuse problems.

Once incarcerated, the site says, those with a mental illness stay in longer and are at higher risk of returning to jail compared with those unaffected by an illness.

Stepping Up, supported by private, medical and government groups, helps parishes and counties develop plans to budget for treatment access and promote alternatives to incarceration.

Calcasieu Parish is one of only four government agencies in Louisiana — and among 324 nationwide — signed on to the initiative.

“Stepping Up is in its infancy here, but we are making progress,” said state district court Judge Robert Wyatt, who is spearheading the local effort.

Wyatt said Stepping Up was brought to his attention in late 2015 by people in Mental Health Court, over which he presides. In December 2015, he spoke about the initiative to the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury, which approved the submission of an application to the U.S. Department of Justice.

A group led by Wyatt then attended the April 2016 National Stepping Up Summit in Washington, D.C. The meeting provided strategies, resources and networking opportunities to help teams develop systemwide plans.

“We heard from speakers who touted what they were doing in their communities and the vast savings they were garnering from implementing the procedures,” Wyatt said.

“They spoke not only of the savings but also about putting into place those things that addressed the needs of people with mental health issues who have been incarcerated.”

Dick Tanous, executive director and coordinator for Mental Health Court, also attended the conference.

“The whole idea was that a lot of agencies in attendance were looking for answers, and some of those answers came from other places,” he said. Some of those places, Tanous said, have permanently reduced jail populations by 20 percent “through implementation of these kinds of programs.”

Wyatt said the local group was asked to attend the conference partly because of Mental Health Court, which provides participants with counseling and help with obtaining housing and jobs.

Stepping Up, Tanous said, takes the things being done in Mental Health Court — where 90 percent of participants have substance abuse and mental health problems — and spreads them throughout the system.

“Everything we need to make Stepping Up work is already here,” Wyatt said. “We just need to funnel these people into these services.”

And funding, he said, will come from several sources, such as grants, and possibly in the form of services.

Aside from the judges and the Police Jury, other stakeholders in the initiative include the District Attorney’s Office, the Calcasieu Parish Sheriff’s Office and the Imperial Calcasieu Human Services Authority.

Jenny Mills, ICHSA’s behavior health division director, said her group was asked to be a part of the effort because it is the main treatment provider for Mental Health Court, as well as the five-parish area.

She called Stepping Up “another piece of the puzzle” in solving a longtime problem.

“I think it is about bringing more awareness to the issue and really trying to tackle some of the problems that have been systemic for as long as anyone can remember,” Mills said.

Wyatt said the group, which includes a Lake Charles police representative, has been trying to meet regularly each month to “see where we are trying to go.” He said other law enforcement agencies haven’t been included yet because “we want to make sure we have some things in place.”

“We are in the planning stage right now and trying to figure out what we can do relative to the size of our community,” he said.

Wyatt said a trip to San Antonio is being planned to see what has been done there that might be usable here. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” he said, “We just need to keep the car moving.”

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