By Jess Rollins
A new collaborative project, now in its infancy, is aimed specifically at helping people who suffer from a serious mental illness get into treatment and stay out of jail.
The partnership between law enforcement, jail officials, prosecutors and area mental health advocates has started to identify those stuck in a cycle of incarceration.
Parts of the collaboration project are funded by a two-year, $200,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, which was awarded to the Greene County Jail.
Simultaneous to the jail’s project, Springfield police have begun to implement the city’s first comprehensive program focused on people suffering with mental illness.
Project participants hope the collaborative programs will free up city and county resources chronically drained by a small group of untreated mentally ill citizens.
Police Chief Paul Williams said the collaboration project, described as being on “the ground floor,” will need public and private support to combat what is widely perceived as a community problem.
“The standard has always been that if someone is doing something illegal, they go to jail,” Williams said.
“Really, the underlying issue could be mental illness.”
Since beginning to work with the other officials in January, Springfield police have identified 16 people in the center-city area who suffer from mental illness and who cross paths with law enforcement often.
Now, when police respond to minor incidents involving these individuals, instead of taking them to jail, they are often diverted to available community resources.
Williams said, so far, two of the 16 are in treatment.
“The rest, we are still working with,” he said.
If successful, the list could be expanded to include those who are recognized as untreated mentally ill and live in other parts of the city.
The department’s new program is modeled after mental health programs at the Memphis Police Department in Tennessee and the Tulsa Police Department in Oklahoma, where Williams served for more than 20 years.
Williams hopes that, in time, local community groups, law enforcement and private citizens work together to help make the program successful.
“There needs to be more community involvement as opposed to just ignoring the problem.”
The grant will cover some specific instruction called Crisis Intervention Team training, a major component of the police department’s program.
That training focuses on the interaction between the mentally ill and law enforcement and is one of Greene County Deputy Cathy Ussery’s specialties.
“It kinda changes your tactics,” said Ussery, Crisis Intervention Team training coordinator with the sheriff’s office.
“Some tactics work better for someone with mental illness.”
Ideally, officers who complete the 40-hour crisis intervention training are able to spot the difference between a psychotic episode, a drug-induced craze or something else entirely.
To date, only about six Greene County deputies — including Ussery — have received the specialized training.
“We are not a pioneer by any means,” said Sheriff Jim Arnott.
Ussery hopes to extend the training to more deputies as well as other police forces in nearby municipalities, including Springfield police.
“It’s something that the community desperately needs,” she said.
“We want to be able to train as many officers as possible.”
Williams said his goal is to have about 10 percent of the police force receive the specialized training.
One of the major goals of the training is to educate officers on community resources available to people suffering from mental illness.
For now, though, those resources are limited.
Beyond cooperating with family members, area law enforcement have two choices for mentally ill offenders: emergency room or jail.
“As of right now, there is nothing really in between,” Ussery said.
She and Williams said finding a viable alternative is a priority goal of the project.
“It would be great if we had something like that,” Williams said.
“But we aren’t there yet.”
Another grant-funded aspect of the project is helping mentally ill inmates transition to life on the outside.
To that end, participants can receive medications, counseling sessions, a month of housing and bus passes to make it to appointments.
While the services that can be provided are short- term, they are designed to fill the gap to enable a needy person to sign up for Medicaid or veteran’s benefits if they qualify, or at least give the person a little time to get a job.
So far, about 50 former inmates are in various stages of the program.
“Hopefully they won’t end up in that revolving door of coming to the jail over and over,” said Melissa Ussery, mental health coordinator for the Greene County Jail.
(Melissa Ussery is Cathy Ussery’s sister-in-law).
In applying for the grant, county officials noted:
“Greene County Jail has become the largest mental health care facility in the area.”
People with mental illnesses are usually not taking medication when they arrive at the jail because they can’t afford them or have not been clinically diagnosed. Emergency rooms are the main medical provider for the uninsured.
“They are often rearrested and the cycle continues,” the application reads.
When the two-year grant expires, participants hope to have provided screening, assessment and discharge planning for about 400 people with mental illness who are detained for non-violent offenses.
As for the 50 former inmates taking advantage of the services, it isn’t yet clear if the project has been effective at limiting jail stints.
Melissa Ussery said patience is needed when treating people with mental illness. She said many also suffer from addiction and getting out of jail could lead to relapse.
But she added: “Relapse is a part of recovery.
“So, it depends on how you measure success.”
In proposing a new law enforcement tax, Greene County officials speak of many problems, holes and issues with the local criminal justice system.
They also speak of how a new 1/4-cent or 1/8-cent tax could provide remedies on some fronts.
No officials, however, have spoken about revenues from such a tax easing the problem with mentally ill inmates at the jail.
With a new tax, many new county-paid jobs have also been suggested or recommended, some at the jail. None, however, have been suggested as a way to deal with mentally ill inmates or reduce their numbers.
In addition, no one interviewed for this two-day report spoke of a new tax as the pathway to addressing this problem.
Movement toward any sort of solution, experts and officials say, would require more funding not for law enforcement but for resources for the ill outside jail and outside law enforcement, for instance at mental health facilities.
An additional wise move, experts say, would be to change commitment laws to force the seriously mentally ill to take help or to take medication.