Reformers want to change how the criminal justice system deals with the mentally ill — including cases like the homeless man holed up with explosives strapped to his chest barricaded in a Payson home.
Now here’s the big surprise: The reformers were Navajo County Sheriff David Clouse and Navajo County Attorney Brad Carlyon.
Mentally ill people lacking help to control their behavior make up at least 20% of the 350 people locked up in county jails. Moreover, perhaps a third of the 500 people on probation in Navajo County cycle endlessly in and out of the criminal justice system mostly because they can find little help for their mental health issues — including addiction.
As a result, the county’s going broke locking up people who need treatment, often making their problems much worse, Carlyon told the intent, supportive board of supervisors at their meeting.
“We’re looking for an option where we can send them into treatment, remove them from the chaos” of the jails and the criminal justice system, said Clouse.
“We can save lives and families and give back to children a parent. We think we know how to do it although we’ve never run a behavioral health business. But we think it’s an idea that will change everything,” said Carlyon.
So Clouse and Carlyon have proposed a bold idea: Navajo County should go into the mental health business.
They want to provide mental health services to people in the jail and on probation, with a combination of grants and payments for services from the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS). The treatment programs in jail and in the community could prevent people from cycling in and out of the criminal justice system — ultimately saving the county money, better protecting the community and helping people regain control over their lives.
Clouse and Carlyon want the county to investigate the upfront costs and potential savings of establishing behavioral health units for the jail, probation and the community. Rep. Walt Blackman has promised to introduce a bill this session seeking $1.5 million in seed money to set up a pilot program.
The program could save lives.
Clouse remembered one of his early cases. A distraught husband called at Thanksgiving to say his wife was suicidal, unable to see her children from her first marriage at Thanksgiving. Deputies arrived to find the woman sitting on the floor of her bedroom, a gun at the “ready” position — which means she could easily turn the gun on herself or on deputies.
“Now we have to protect our own lives. That’s a horrible situation. We were boxed in this situation. People don’t know what else to do, so they call us. But sometimes law enforcement’s presence elevates the situation and causes other problem. They see the uniform and they say, ‘Oh, now I’m going to jail.’ That’s not the solution.”
Deputies handled the woman in that case without violence, but the close call has haunted Clouse — and convinced him that deputies need more options in dealing with people in such extremes. He said young deputies rarely have enough training to deal with the mentally ill — and don’t have support teams and experts to call in to help defuse these situations.
“Deputies give a command and see the people are not responding. We’re finding we have no resources. We need more services so we don’t just send them into the system.”
Lacking alternatives, deputies must either walk away — leaving the problem unresolved or make an arrest.
Again, Payson police officers faced the same no-win choice in their previous dealings with the man who ended up barricaded in his dead mother’s house — wired with explosives. Police had encountered him twice before — including a previous incident in which he locked himself in his mother’s empty house.
Under the current system, people with substance abuse or mental health issues wind up getting repeatedly arrested, passing through the courts and ending up in jail, said Carlyon.
“We have to look at ways to get these people out of the (criminal justice) system,” said Carlyon.
At least 15% or 20% of those who end up in court have mental health rather than criminal behavior problems, he said.
Already, drug courts have proven successful at reducing recidivism rates. But the drug courts can only handle a small percentage of the cases.
“We don’t have a mental health court,” but that’s what we need, said Carlyon. “We can tell them they need to get treatment — but we have no leverage” and only a handful of treatment slots in mostly Valley-based programs for referrals.
Seeking a solution, the county’s top criminal justice officials began brainstorming — inspired by a successful diversion and treatment program established by Yavapai County.
“We thought, why can’t we set up our own behavioral health team?” said Carlyon. “We can bill AHCCCS” and perhaps provide much better services at no net cost to the county — especially when you consider the cost of fewer prosecutions and incarcerations.
Moreover, a behavioral health system could cope with sex offenders, domestic violence, drug abuse and the other problems that make up so much of the criminal caseload.
“We think we can provide services to 1,200 people a year at no net cost to Navajo County,” said Carlyon.
“You can start with a diversion program, so that when you get the schizophrenic who’s off his meds and shoplifting a six-pack of beer to self-medicate doesn’t come to my office,” said Carlyon.
The program has the potential to reduce criminal caseloads by 15% to 20%, while providing more effective treatment for offenders and better protection for the community. In Navajo County, that could mean 250 fewer people in jail and several hundred fewer people on normal probation — a saving of millions of dollars, not counting the money saved by not going through the courts.
Gila County has about half the population of Navajo County, so the numbers are smaller. However, the problems are the same in all the rural counties without easy access to mental health treatment.
Apache County Attorney Michael Whiting said he faces the same problem in dealing with the mentally ill. In his case, he said the development of an effective system next door would prove a huge benefit if he could send people next door for treatment.
Clouse said the next step lies in working out a detailed proposal for how to provide those services, including treatment in the jails, diversion programs run by mental health counselors and a mental health treatment component to probation. For instance, the county could save $200,000 a year it now spends sending people to the state mental hospital in Phoenix for “restoration to competence” so they’re sane enough to stand trial. Gila and Apache county face similar costs.
The supervisors greeted the idea enthusiastically.
Newly seated Supervisor Daryl Seymore said, “It’s definitely needed. Whatever we can do, I will support that.”
Supervisor Dawnafe Whitesinger said, “This reaches far outside the inmate population — it affects our families and our communities. One of the things we all struggle with is finding (mental health) practitioners. I will support you in any way I can.”
Supervisor Lee Jack said, “I think it’s a great idea.” He recalled an encounter just the week before with a veteran who had done four tours in Iraq and returned home struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. “He couldn’t deal with it. But he finally turned to behavioral health and lo and behold, he’s doing good.”
Supervisor Jason Whiting commented, “I thank you for the innovation. You’re finding real solutions for real people.”