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Jail Is Tough, but Some Groups Hope to Improve What Happens After Release

Nonprofits are modeling ways to connect people with treatment, housing and other services while protecting public safety. Lawmakers are intrigued.

By Kate Bryan  |  June 5, 2023

It’s never a good day when someone becomes involved with the criminal justice system, but an Oklahoma nonprofit that seeks to end homelessness worries more about what happens after that.

“We’re concerned about the next day,” says Jason Beaumont, director of criminal justice initiatives at Housing Solutions in Tulsa, Okla.

Recent numbers show that most individuals entering Oklahoma’s criminal justice system for nonviolent offenses need mental health or substance use treatment—a situation common across the nation.

Nationwide, jails and prisons often house more people with behavioral health needs than state-run psychiatric facilities.

In April, a group of legislators and legislative staff from seven states visited Oklahoma to learn how Tulsa County and community-based organizations are connecting system-involved individuals to transportation, housing, mental health treatment and other resources at the pretrial phase of their cases.

The rate of mental illness among those in jails is nearly 2.5 times that in the general population. But despite the disproportionate number of justice-involved individuals with mental health needs, jails are often unable to provide the services and treatment necessary to help people successfully reenter the community and stay out of the criminal justice system.

According to a growing body of research, incarcerating individuals with mental illness often does not deter recidivism and can stress state and county budgets. In Oklahoma, the annual projected cost of confining someone with a serious mental illness is $23,000, compared with $4,000 for programming and treatment for individuals who are not incarcerated.

With jails and prisons often housing more people with behavioral health needs than state-run psychiatric facilities, lawmakers and other stakeholders across the country are exploring ways to connect those who need mental health treatment with community-based services, while simultaneously protecting public safety.

“Every justice system stakeholder in Kentucky, across party lines and the entire spectrum of criminal justice philosophies, agrees that the vast majority of defendants are struggling with behavioral health diagnoses,” says Kentucky Sen. Whitney Westerfield (R), who was part of the group in Tulsa. “Often, defendants are struggling with more than one such diagnosis. These Kentuckians are arguably the ones in greatest need of behavioral health interventions.”

Westerfield recently carried legislation to address these issues in his state, with SB90 creating pilot programs in at least 10 counties that would require mental health and substance use disorder assessments for low-level offenders. If an individual successfully completes the Behavioral Health Conditional Dismissal Program, charges could be dismissed. Additionally, the program would offer educational, employment and housing support services.

A Nonprofit ‘Services Hub’

Meeting participants toured the Tulsa County Court, observed the morning’s bond docket and stopped in at the court’s “services hub,” where defendants are given resource referrals, enrolled in court reminders and provided basic needs, such as clothing.

Once such referral option is the nonprofit group JusticeLink—a “one-stop shop” for court and resource navigation. The policymakers learned how JusticeLink’s free, voluntary services are coordinated with local nonprofit partners to facilitate court compliance and address barriers to community reentry, such as obtaining vital documents and finding housing. The year-old organization has worked with over 200 justice-involved individuals.

“What I encourage, and what I hope is considered, is the value of coordination. Without coordination, we have missed the mark,” JusticeLink program director Nathan Rhae told the group.

Westerfield says hubs such as JusticeLink make sense. “Seeing the impact and value of JusticeLink and its partner agencies, along with the operation of the bond docket, was incredibly helpful,” he says. “Every jurisdiction should model similar social service and support ‘hubs,’ and being able to see the programs and ask questions of the providers on the front line of such a model is invaluable.”

For those in Tulsa County who have benefited from these service models, the impact has been profound. “I was sleeping on cardboard behind an abandoned building. Each day, I was worried how I would get my next fix. Now, I have a job, I have a home,” says one former client. “It isn’t always easy, but I can be proud of where I’m at now.”

Kate Bryan is a policy associate in NCSL’s Criminal Justice Program.

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