Johnson County leads way in national program to keep those with mental illnesses out of jail
Johnson County will join three other national cities on the forefront of the effort to reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in jail and announced a new initiative called "Stepping Up" on Tuesday in Shawnee.
The initiative is designed to help counties across the country reduce their own number of adults with mental and co-occurring substance use disorders in jail. Johnson County is joining counties in Washington, D.C., Miami-Dade County in Florida and Sacramento County in California as part of the initiative.
Johnson County Commission Chairman Ed Eilert said on Tuesday at the county's Crisis Recovery Center in Shawnee that being a part of the Stepping Up initiative is an honor. He said that through the initiative, Johnson County will continue to look at its own programs, including its service capacity and the various funding barriers that can restrict the number of people the county is able to help.
At issue across the county and locally in Johnson County is the "revolving door," as Johnson County Sheriff Frank Denning said, that county jails become when people with diagnosed mental illness offend and never get the treatment they need to set their life on the right path.
Nationwide, there are 2 million adults with mental illnesses admitted to jails each year. Denning said that in Johnson County, those people tend to spend an average of 72 days in jail at a cost of $162 per day. That's much longer than the average jail time of 72 hours to a week for a person not suffering from a mental illness. Those people are then released and resort to a life of homelessness and more crime because they are not properly taken care of by mental health professionals.
"This is wrong," Denning simply said.
In Overland Park and Olathe, the county has already started a "co-responder program" in which a mental health professional responds along with first responders to determine if a person needs mental care rather than a jail cell. Eilert said this program has seen 900 calls and less than 2 percent of those people have ended up in jail. This, he said, is one way to reduce the strained budgets of county correctional facilities and burdened tax payers while also doing a lot to help the individuals battling the mental illnesses.
Through the Stepping Up program, Eilert said the county plans to commit to plan with measurable outcomes through the National Association of Counties, the Council for State Governments Justice Center and the American Psychiatric Foundation in which participants will be asked to track their progress and note their successes.
Denning said the problem is not just a national or county one, but rather a personal issue. As he said, everyone is connected to mental illness through their family and friends. He said that these programs cannot continue to be the first to take a hit in the budget when government agencies look to save money.
"Mental illness touches each and everyone of us," Denning said, adding that he lost a brother to suicide after he battled a long addiction to pharmaceutical medications.
A Leawood man, Howard Snyder, told the story of his son Howard, or "Howie," who battled schizophrenia for most of his life. He said his son, who was at one point a top freshman at the University of Arizona, studied geology and was fluent in French. But he never got the treatment he needed, and it took 10 years and several trips to jail before the corrections department realized the type of treatment he needed. Howie died at the age of 46 of natural causes but was able to live the last 15 years of his life relatively normally after successfully going through a program at the Johnson County Mental Health Center, which sees more than 10,000 clients per year.
Snyder has since taken on the cause of fighting for more aid for those battling mental illnesses. He joined the county mental health center board and has seen the budget for the program grow from $4 million to more than $30 million in two decades. He said the budget for these programs is key to keeping cost in other areas like corrections down.
Other speakers at Tuesday's event included the National Association of Counties Commissioner Sallie Clark from Colorado Springs, Colo., and Assistant Attorney General of Kansas Pat Colloton. Clark said the county is doing the right thing to try to address the problem before these people end up in jail or worse.
"We have to go upstream to find out how this is happening downstream," Clark said.