988: A Shared Opportunity

for Criminal Justice and Behavioral Health Partners

988: A Shared Opportunity

On July 16, 2022, the U.S. transitioned to 988—a 3-digit code for people to reach the National Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, creating a unique opportunity to rethink how people are connected to compassionate, accessible care. Communities around the country are now determining how this new, national dialing code works alongside existing law enforcement and crisis responses.  

For criminal justice stakeholders, the transition to 988 is an important opportunity to shift people in crisis toward appropriate care, and help redesign crisis responses that, when implemented effectively, minimize contact with law enforcement and the justice system.  

This project seeks to equip criminal justice leaders with information that supports their efforts to: 

  • Raise awareness of the services 988 provides; 
  • Build a shared vision of the opportunity 988 presents; and  
  • Coordinate with their 988 partners and other behavioral health crisis providers to appropriately direct people to 988 from first contact with law enforcement through reentry.  

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Who should dial 988 for help?

The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline provides free, 24/7 access to trained crisis counselors who can help people experiencing mental health-related distress. This could include thoughts of suicide, mental health or substance use crisis, or any other kind of emotional hardship. Callers do not have to be actively suicidal or in crisis to use 988. People can call, text, or chat 988lifeline.org for themselves, a loved one, or someone else in the community who needs support, resources, or mental health services, which are distinct from the law enforcement or medical support that someone might get through a 911 response.

988 currently offers live crisis phone services in English and Spanish and provides translation services in 250 additional languages. 988 also offers specialized service lines for LGBTQ+ and veteran callers.

2. Why is 988 an important tool for criminal justice stakeholders to understand and promote?

Criminal justice stakeholders can play a vital role in helping to advance health-first strategies that reduce overreliance on law enforcement, jails, and emergency services. When criminal justice stakeholders understand what 988 offers, they can appropriately direct people to 988 from initial first contact with law enforcement (or before) through reentry. Getting the right care at the right time prevents justice system involvement and improves people’s chances of receiving lifesaving care. Taking an active role in the promotion of 988 will not only direct people in crisis to more appropriate care but will also allow law enforcement to devote more time to their core work of improving public safety.

Additionally, reentry service providers—including probation and parole departments—work with populations at higher risk of suicide than the general population and have the opportunity to put a free, life-saving resource in the hands of their clients.

3. How does 988 connect to other parts of the crisis system?

Nearly 98 percent of people who call, text, or chat 988 get the support they need over the phone and do not require a connection to emergency services. Sometimes this support can include connections to resources along the crisis continuum, such as community-based health care providers, mobile crisis teams, or crisis stabilization centers.

However, in a small percentage of 988 calls, there may be imminent risk to someone’s life that cannot be sufficiently resolved with the resources at the crisis counselor’s disposal. In these rare cases, crisis counselors may then share information, such as the caller’s location, if known, with 911 or transfer the call to 911 in an attempt to save the life of the caller or someone else is at risk. Communities are working to ensure 988 and 911 systems are closely coordinated so that appropriate care or response can be provided as needed.

4. How can my professional community build awareness of 988 and help improve crisis response?

The simple act of sharing information is the first important step in awareness and utilization, and the downloadable pocket card found below can help better educate criminal justice professionals and the general public about 988. Criminal justice leaders may also consider inviting behavioral health partners leading 988 implementation to speak at staff meetings, briefings, or in-service training, so the scope of the resource is clear. The CSG Justice Center, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and several states offer public awareness resources that criminal justice stakeholders can use and adapt to raise awareness internally and with the communities they serve.

5. What are some ways that behavioral health and law enforcement agencies can partner with community members to build trust in 988?

Some communities have raised concerns that calling 988 will lead to unwanted law enforcement response or hospitalization. Because of this, many jurisdictions are working on developing clear protocols for transferring calls, when needed, to ensure that they appropriately balance the need to provide life-saving emergency services with community priorities of health-first, least restrictive responses.

Behavioral health and law enforcement partners can help build trust in the 988 dialing code by educating community members about what to expect when they call 988, including reassurance of 988’s confidentiality. The National Alliance for Mental Illness can be a key grassroots partner in public awareness efforts and testimonials. Law enforcement and behavioral health partners can also help ensure that mental health emergencies are responded to with care and sensitivity, thinking through elements such as who responds, what type of vehicle and professional attire they present with, and what type of training they have, which are all necessary considerations for building trust and reducing stigma to accessing crisis services in communities. Learn more about approaches to Community-driven crisis response here.

Key Staff

Deputy Division Director, Behavioral Health
Ernest Stevens oversees the portfolio of work focused on improving outcomes for people experiencing behavioral health conditions and homelessness who encounter law enforcement. Ernest supports communities in adopting, implementing, and evaluating new practices. Previously, Ernest spent over 28 years in
law enforcement helping develop new programs and policies for the San Antonio Police Department. He also worked as a program manager for the Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council that oversees emergency operations for 22 counties in Texas. Ernest was featured in the Emmy Award-winning documentary Ernie and Joe: Crisis Cops. Ernest also wrote Mental Health and De-Escalation: A Guide for Law Enforcement Professionals. He earned his BS in criminal justice from Wayland Baptist University. 
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Director of Justice and Health Initiatives, Behavioral Health
Hallie Fader-Towe works with local and state policymakers to craft policies, processes, and programs that bring research-informed approaches to their jurisdictions. In her positions with the CSG Justice Center, she has worked with jurisdictions around the country on collaborative, data-driven
planning and implementation efforts to address criminal justice functions from initial detention through reentry, including a focus on people with mental illnesses. She has also managed the development of training materials on mental health courts and on judicial responses to the prevalence of individuals with mental illnesses involved with the criminal justice system. She has written on court case processing, competency to stand trial, dispute systems design for state trial courts, pretrial responses to people with mental illnesses, information sharing between criminal justice and mental health systems, and mental health court design and implementation. Before joining the CSG Justice Center, she was a management consultant with McKinsey & Company in New York. Hallie received a BA from Brown University and a JD from Harvard Law School. 
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  • Katie Holihen 2022
    Senior Policy Analyst, Behavioral Health
    Katie Holihen works to advance locally driven state policymaking at the intersection of criminal justice, behavioral health, and housing. Prior to joining the CSG Justice Center, Katie was a grant analyst at the Cook County Public Defender’s Office in Chicago,
    where she worked with cross-sector partners to launch holistic defense and data analytics programs. She also led curriculum development for national law enforcement training initiatives in procedural justice and cultural humility at the Center for Public Safety and Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Katie has a BA in history and political science from Marquette University and an MSW from Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
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  • BJA logo

    This project is supported by Grant No. 2019-MO-BX-K002 awarded by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA). BJA is a component of the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the Office for Victims of Crime, and the SMART Office. This work is also conducted in partnership with The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice, SAMHSA, or the Council of State Governments.