Douglas County delegation to travel to San Antonio to look at ways to reduce jail time for mentally ill
A delegation of Douglas County leaders will travel to San Antonio next month to examine how that community has changed its law enforcement and judicial systems to cut down on the number of mentally ill defendants who end up in jail.
A Lawrence faith-based group, Justice Matters, has organized the trip, and hopes that seeing the system in Bexar County, Texas, will be useful as Douglas County leaders consider a jail expansion project that could cost taxpayers $20 million or more.
“What we’re really hoping is that the community can think about a better way to provide mental health services,” said John McDermott, a pastor at Morning Star Church and co-president of the Justice Matters organization. “We know the economics of providing good mental health care are much more efficient than the costs of incarceration.”
Thus far, 11 city, county, health care, judicial and law enforcement officials have agreed to make the trip to San Antonio for a day-and-a-half tour on April 9-10. They include:
• Lawrence Police Chief Tarik Khatib;
• Lawrence Memorial Hospital CEO Gene Meyer;
• County Commissioner Mike Gaughan;
• County Commissioner Nancy Thellman;
• County Administrator Craig Weinaug;
• Lawrence Community Shelter Director Brian Blevins;
• District Attorney Charles Branson
• Sheriff’s Department Capt. Eric Spurling;
• Municipal Court Judge Scott Miller;
• Bert Nash CEO David Johnson;
• Lawrence City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer.
Ben MacConnell, lead organizer for the Justice Matter group, said the system in San Antonio includes law enforcement officers who have received special training in mental health, a judicial system that has created diversion/treatment programs for non-violent mentally ill defendants, and a health care system that can provide the appropriate treatments.
“What we already have heard from leaders there is that the secret to making a system work is full investment and collaboration between all the key players in mental health, law enforcement and the judicial system,” MacConnell said. “Once you get the collaborative spirit going, that is when the program becomes effective.”
Justice Matters, a collaboration of 21 Lawrence congregations, has been studying mental health issues for several months, MacConnell said. The group worked throughout 2014 to come up with three community goals that it wanted to work toward. Improving mental health care, increasing the accessibility of affordable housing, and addressing childhood trauma were the issues the group chose.
In addition to the local leaders that have committed to the trip, MacConnell said six members of the Justice Matters group also will go to San Antonio. MacConnell said the group also is hoping a judge from the Douglas County District Court will be able to make the trip.