We Must Meet the Drug and Mental Health Crisis with Innovation
We’ve heard anecdotal evidence for years, but now the numbers are in. The mental health and substance abuse crisis is spiraling out of control, and too often it’s landing on the doorstep of law enforcement.
The federal government estimates that, of the roughly 11 million people cycling through jail every year, 64 percent struggle with mental illness. Another 68 percent are coping with substance abuse. That’s all at a taxpayer cost of $22 billion, not to mention the risk, time and resources it drains from law enforcement.
After 35 years of experience, Alex Payne, commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Criminal Justice Training (DOCJT), recently summed it up well for a reporter.
“When I first started in this career, we were rarely dealing with this issue of the mentally ill or even coming across it in the process of doing our jobs; now, it’s daily,” Payne told WLKY. “The unfortunate thing is, not all of these people need to be incarcerated; however, that’s where they end up.”
In Kentucky, we spend nearly $600 million a year on corrections – funds I’d rather see spent on the front end of public safety, especially for law enforcement agencies and treatment providers. But getting there will take innovative thinking and a lot more options for pre-arrest diversion.
The Justice and Public Safety Cabinet partnered with the Crime and Justice Institute in November to host a public forum on the issue and help advance the conversation. We heard about some impressive work already underway.
We should applaud Kentucky State Police Commissioner Rick Sanders for launching KSP’s Angel Initiative, which allows those with a substance abuse disorder to visit a KSP post and receive assistance locating treatment.
DOCJT has done tremendous work in providing training to Kentucky officers about crisis-intervention strategies – such as de-escalation techniques – that make encounters safer for all parties.
I also want to praise Alexandria Police Chief Mike Ward for hiring social workers to augment traditional police work with expertise in community interventions and social services.
Initiatives like these will allow us to transition mental health and substance abuse cases away from criminal justice and into a public-health model. But much more work is needed.
According to the Crime and Justice Institute, approximately 22 percent of Kentuckians suffer from some type of mental illness, 5 percent of whom have a serious mental illness. Many also suffer from a co-occurring substance use disorder and vice versa. However, research shows that incarceration does not improve either condition.
Instead, we all should be pushing for more collaboration with our partners in community mental health and the courts to get people the care they need. And when possible, law enforcement agencies would be wise to invest in crisis intervention teams and mental health staff.
These efforts cost money, but all the evidence points to savings in the long-run.