City News

Dane County has all hands on deck to divert those with mental illnesses from jail. What’s next?

City officials say that there is more work to be done in regards to consistent data and terminology that can help divert those with mental illnesses away from jail time.

Image By: Camille Paskind

Between Jan. 16 and 17, Dane County criminal justice leaders met to answer this question: How can we best direct people with mental illness away from the criminal justice system?

The workshop, a first of its kind for this subject matter, involved a variety of individuals like behavioral and mental health officials, the clerk of courts, Madison firefighters and local law enforcement.

The solution centered on the Sequential Intercept Model, a six-point plan that establishes distinct points where officials and individuals interact with those considered mentally ill. The model explains how best to divert these individuals depending on their point of interaction.

Local agencies have already begun to undertake this effort. In February 2015, the Madison Police Department created five full-time Mental Health Officers who work to direct those who have come in contact with law enforcement toward health resources instead of the criminal justice system.

In 2016, these officers handled 71 emergency detentions — incidents where an individual must be detained not for a crime, but for safety reasons. That same year, the department found that out of the more than 45,000 cases investigated by the city, 8.6 percent were mental health-related.

Additionally, a December 2016 study of the Dane County Jail found that out of the 66,373 people in the data file, four percent were classified as having a mental health issue. The average length of stay for those individuals was 58 percent higher than the total population.

Racial disparities also exist among inmates suffering from mental illness, with the median average length of stay for black inmates being 10 days compared to six for white.

But according to Colleen Clark, equity and criminal justice council coordinator for the Dane County Board, these agencies still lack valuable data and agreed-upon terminology necessary to create cohesive pipeline — and that’s what’s happening next.

“The first thing is, OK, what is severely mental ill from the perspective of somebody who’s a subject matter expert,” she asked. “Is that the same definition as [Department of Corrections]? We got to speak the same language.”

Regardless, the overarching goal is to improve the front end of justice — the points in the SIM model that come before a court appearance.

“Especially in the state of Wisconsin, diverting people out of the system that can be diverted out of the system, so those vulnerable folks, is going to be really key to not having huge collateral consequences for them,” Clark said.

Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney agreed, saying it’s imperative officers are trained to handle those who need to be directed to the proper resources.

“The initial step is the most important,” he said, adding that those who obtain a criminal record have lives that are forever changed, something he considers a failure of his and the messaging of the criminal justice system.

He added it’s important that residents move forward in support for the Dane County Jail because as it stands, residents are not being housed properly.

The now-approved $76 million renovation for the jail received backlash from community members who felt the money should be spent on community alternatives. Mahoney emphasized that the renovations would decrease the number of beds from 1,013 to 922.

“It’s not just the Sheriff’s responsibility, it’s the community’s responsibility to ensure those who are incarcerated are done so humanely and safely,” Mahoney said.

Moving forward, Mahoney doubled down that his commitment is to facilitate discussion with law enforcement officials and the chiefs of police to create a collective plan.

“Right now, the process is all 29 police departments can operate in any way [and] fashion they wish,“ he said. “It would be nice if there was a consistent model on how we move forward.”

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