Douglas County earns national recognition for reducing population of inmates with mental illness

The Douglas County Commission meets in the historic courtroom on the second floor of the county courthouse, 1100 Massachusetts St.

The National Association of Counties has recognized Douglas County for its efforts to reduce its population of inmates with mental illness, a county jail official said Wednesday.

Mike Brouwer, director of the re-entry program at the Douglas County Jail, told county commissioners that the county was one of eight in the nation invited to become a Stepping Up Innovator County. The designation is part of the National Association of Counties’ Stepping Up initiative, which aims to reduce the incarceration of people with mental illness.

Among the programs the association cited in giving Douglas County the designation are the behavioral health court; the pretrial release program; a pilot program starting this year to divert eight women from jail and into substance abuse treatment and counseling; and the Lawrence Police Department’s co-responder program, in which a behavioral health professional accompanies officers to incidents involving someone with mental health issues.

The recognition arrives as the county prepares to ask voters to approve a half-cent sales tax to fund a $44 million expansion of the county jail and construct an $11 million behavioral health campus. Commission Chair Nancy Thellman said the designation demonstrated to voters that the county was in the forefront of national efforts to find alternate placement for inmates with behavioral health issues.

“We’re in the elite eight,” she said.

Brouwer said he was not sure of what specific benefits the county would get from the designation, but that it would probably include an invitation for county officials to present at a conference. He said he would learn more about what it involved Friday at a meeting with a representative from the Council of State Governments Justice Center, one of the National Association of Counties’ partners in the Stepping Up initiative.