Plan for mentally ill inmates forms
Earlier assessments, access to medications among priorities
Douglas County Sheriff Ken McGovern is trying to fix a system he knows is broken.
It doesn't make a lot of sense, he said, for the jail to keep releasing an ever-increasing number of mentally ill inmates into the community when there isn't much of a network to help them find a place to live, land a job or stay on their medications.
"They just keep coming back," McGovern said.
McGovern and Undersheriff Kenny Massey last month convened a 20-member "re-entry committee" they hope will find ways to reverse the trend. The group met for six hours last week at a Lawrence restaurant.
"The pieces to make this work are out there," Massey said. "I really believe they're going to start falling together pretty quickly."
Already, the sheriff's department and Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center are working on:
- Having mentally ill inmates dropped off at Bert Nash upon their release. Currently, they're driven to the Douglas County Judicial and Law Enforcement Center near 11th and Massachusetts streets.
- Assessing the inmates while they're in jail, so that upon release they won't wait two to three weeks to see someone at Bert Nash.
- Making sure inmates have access to their medications after release from jail.
Currently, inmates are released without a supply of medication and without a prescription. They are expected to check in with either their doctor or with Bert Nash. Some do, but many don't.
"The biggest gap we have in the system right now is what happens in between the time someone is released from jail and when they get to the mental health center," said Christy Blanchard, coordinator of forensic services at Bert Nash.
Other ideas include starting a halfway house that covers the period between the time a mentally ill person is released from jail and becomes eligible for subsidized housing or rental assistance.
"There's never enough rental assistance, and there's no emergency housing (in Lawrence)," said Barbara Huppee, executive director at the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority. "Everything is waiting-list-based."
Eudora Police Chief Greg Dahlem proposed finding a way to sentence offenders to employment rather than community service.
"I've had people who are really good workers who, I think, somebody would hire if they ever got to see them work," Dahlem said. "As it is now, they see the criminal record and that's it. But if they could be exposed to them as workers, I think some of them would be hired."
David Ruhlen, director of outpatient services at DCCCA, said he was exploring ways to start a small detox facility in Lawrence.
"Funding continues to be a barrier," he said.
Plans call for the committee to meet once a month for at least the next three months. Its next meeting will be from 9 to 11 a.m. May 22 at the law enforcement center.
Eventually, subcommittees will be formed to take on specific proposals. These subcommittees are expected to reach out to other groups like churches and advocates for the mentally ill.
"There's definitely momentum here," Blanchard said.
Last month, consultants with the National Institute of Corrections issued a report aimed at helping the sheriff's department prevent overcrowding at the jail. The report recommended forming a committee to address re-entry issues.
"The concepts are already here. It's just a matter of moving on to the next step," said Kevin Warwick, who co-authored the report.
He praised the committee's efforts.
"You rarely see people come together this quickly," he said. "I'm amazed."