Douglas, Sarpy Counties praised as ‘innovators’ in tackling issue of mental illness among jail inmates

Douglas, Sarpy Counties praised as ‘innovators’ in tackling issue of mental illness among jail inmates
World-Herald News Service

On an average day, there are 1,250 people locked up in the Douglas County Jail, and more than 200 of them have a serious mental illness.

It’s a nationwide problem that’s getting worse — an increasing number of people in jails with mental illnesses. Now, Douglas County is being recognized nationally as an innovator in trying to address the problem in Omaha. The Stepping Up Initiative, a national effort to reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in jails, has designated Douglas County as an innovator, meaning they think other counties can learn from what’s being done in Omaha.

It’s not that Douglas County officials have solved the problem. It’s more that they’re seriously trying to figure out the scope of it, and that the Corrections Department, law enforcement agencies, behavioral health services and elected officials are working together to craft solutions.

“Though I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished, I do not feel that this is an award,” said Mike Myers, Douglas County corrections director. “It’s a responsibility. … We continue to see too many people who are impacted with a variety of afflictions come into our custody each and every day. We also continue to see individuals who, despite our best efforts, are not adequately equipped to be successful when their release date arrives.”

Myers and several other leaders involved in the effort spoke at a press conference Wednesday at the Douglas County Jail. They discussed what they’ve done so far, and sought to attract attention to the need to do more.

“Our jail has become the state’s largest mental health treatment facility, and that must change,” Douglas County Board Member Mary Ann Borgeson said.

She was joined by fellow board members Chris Rodgers and Mike Boyle, Douglas County Sheriff Tim Dunning, Deputy Omaha Police Chief Scott Gray and Vicki Maca, who coordinates the local efforts as director of criminal justice/behavioral health initiatives for Region 6 Behavioral Healthcare.

Nationally, 491 counties have signed on to the Stepping Up Initiative. Those include Douglas, Sarpy, Lancaster, Washington, Otoe, Cass, Boone, Platte and Cuming Counties in Nebraska, and Pottawattamie County in Iowa. The initiative is sponsored by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, the National Association of Counties and the American Psychiatric Association Foundation. They help local agencies develop strategies to divert people who aren’t a public safety risk to treatment instead of jail.

The Douglas County Board joined the national effort in 2015. Since then, county officials and other local leaders have taken a number of steps.

Those include special training of law enforcement and corrections officers, screening people for mental illnesses when they’re booked into jail, assigning multi-disciplinary teams to people receiving care in jail and increasing re-entry services when they’re released so they’re less likely to be arrested again.

“But this is just the beginning,” Myers said.

Earlier this month, Douglas County became the 12th county in the nation to be designated a Stepping Up Initiative innovator. It’s because of local agencies’ collaborative effort to collect data, screen and determine the numbers of people with serious mental illnesses, do follow-up assessments and follow up electronically, said Risë Haneberg, a deputy division director for Stepping Up.

It might not seem like much, but she said having criminal justice agencies, behavioral health providers and elected officials collaborating on the issue is a feat in itself. And it’s essential to solving the problem.

“I cannot emphasize enough what a big lift that is to have all those entities working together on the same page,” Haneberg said.

She said Stepping Up also designated Sarpy County as an innovator Wednesday.

Myers said there’s a lot more work to do, including advocating for more capacity for treatment in the community, better mental health care in jail to lessen the damage that incarceration can cause, and more cooperation with law enforcement and courts to “divert individuals whose behavior is more symptomatic of mental illness than of criminal intent from ever coming to jail in the first place.”

The head of a group that provides services and advocacy said Douglas and Sarpy Counties deserve the recognition for the positive steps they are taking.

“They don’t have to do this, but they know it’s the right thing to do,” said Loren Knauss, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Nebraska. “This is going to help the people in the jails, but it’s also going to help victims. … And in the long run, it will save taxpayers money.”