Douglas County officials, public discuss mental health support, jail expansion

Though inmate populations near capacity at the Douglas County Jail were one of the catalysts for several community organizations coming together to look into providing better services for people with serious mental illness, the focus has become better services for the entire community.

“There are other things we need to open our minds to, to look at it, to evaluate it and see if it’s a benefit to our community,” Douglas County Sheriff Ken McGovern told the about 30 attendees at a town hall meeting Monday evening. “We can say, ‘Let’s just build a jail, continue to build a jail,’ but that’s not the answer.”

The sheriff’s office, county officials and other community partners hosted the meeting at the Douglas County Courthouse to discuss the potential projects for a jail expansion and mental health crisis intervention center.

Past research done by criminal justice consultants Huskey & Associates indicated that 18 percent of bookings into the jail are people with serious mental illness, and that 80 percent of those individuals had not been convicted of a violent offense.

As part of the meeting, Jason Matejkowski and Margaret Severson, both with the Kansas University School of Social Welfare, presented the findings of a research project that examined the programs and services that other communities have available for people with serious mental illness, as well as how those programs intersect with the criminal justice system.

As part of the research, Matejkowski, Severson and community officials visited crisis centers, substance abuse centers, jails and mental health courts in four cities: Lexington, Ky., Washington, D.C., San Antonio and Topeka. Severson presented the pros and cons of the various programs in each city.

“We all sensed that they offered us some idea what we might implement here, but also some ideas that we might want to avoid or do differently,” Severson said.

McGovern said he thinks that one of the things the community is lacking is a crisis center, and he is behind the idea of adding one.

“It was very eye opening to go to these places and visit and evaluate what they have to offer, and to look back at what we have,” McGovern said. “There are some things that we can add.”

Based on a literature review, Matejkowski also presented a series of 10 recommendations for a community crisis center and mental health court. For a community crisis center, recommendations included that the center not be solely used for diversion by law enforcement; provide individuals access to and engagement with needed services; and have policies in place that expedite law enforcement referrals.

For a mental health court, recommendations included that continued coordination with municipal and district court be in place to most effectively divert those who are eligible, and that mental health and supportive services (including trauma services) be integrated into the program.

The meeting also included a question and answer session. Audience member Barbara Sabol asked about how other communities have funded programming for people with serious mental illness. Severson explained that a variety of sources — including private insurance, state resources, Medicaid and private support — had funded other programs.

David Johnson, CEO of Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, added that the fact that Kansas has not expanded Medicaid has created gaps in health insurance coverage, and consequently coverage of mental health services for those individuals.

“We’re talking about two different mental health care programs: states that have expanded Medicaid and states that have not,” Johnson said.

The next town hall meeting on expanding the jail and community mental health services will be in December, but a date is not yet set, McGovern said. At that meeting, officials will provide more specifics about potential projects.

“We’ll come together and share where we’re at, and why this is the best solution for our community,” McGovern said.