Failure to appear plagues those in Douglas County court system who have serious mental illness

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

Risë Haneberg, deputy division director of county initiatives with the Council of State Governments Justice Center, provides an update to Douglas County's Criminal Justice Coordinating Council at its meeting Tuesday, March 12, 2019.

Nearly half of people — 48 percent — with serious mental illnesses who were released from the Douglas County Jail from January to June 2017 returned within six months.

Of that group, 38 percent were brought back to jail because they missed a court appearance.

Those statistics are two of several key points a presenter reviewed with the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council at its meeting Tuesday in an update on the Stepping Up Initiative, which aims to reduce the numbers of people with mental illness in jails.

Risë Haneberg, deputy division director of county initiatives for the Council of State Governments Justice Center, said she’s been doing a “deep dive” into the Douglas County criminal justice system for the past year or so. The county received a grant for intensive help from the CSG, so Haneberg has been looking at what happens from the point of arrest through release back into the community — especially for those with serious mental illness, or SMI.

She said the data points she’d picked to share Tuesday weren’t new to all CJCC members, but she and her team thought they were the key ones around which her team’s recommendations should be built, or otherwise, “we don’t know that you’re going to move the needle as much as you would hope.”

She shared some of her team’s preliminary recommendations with the CJCC, and final versions should be released late this spring.

Goals and progress

The Stepping Up strategies focus on four outcomes: reducing the numbers of those with SMI and substance use disorder (SUD) who are booked into jails; shortening their lengths of stay; increasing the percentages of people connected with treatment; and reducing recidivism rates.

Haneberg said that in 2017, the average lengths of stay in the Douglas County Jail for those individuals who have an SMI flag were 17 days longer than for those without. However, the average length of stay for those with a mental health flag — meaning they didn’t rise to the level of SMI but still need behavioral health services — did fall by six days from 2016 to 2017, she said.

Haneberg cautioned that the CJCC should keep in mind that people with SMI who are incarcerated face complex challenges that make it more likely that they will return to jail.

Information she shared from a few studies, for instance, says those individuals are four times as likely to have a history of physical or sexual abuse, twice as likely to have been homeless in the past year, three times as likely to have a co-occuring SUD and 38 percent more likely to have community supervision revoked.

“Even the first days are crucial,” Haneberg said, “to make sure that when they walk out of the jail, they are immediately connected to the services and supports in the community, they have their medications … that support is starting immediately.”

Failures to appear

Among everyone booked into the county jail in 2017, failure to appear was the most frequent charge, according to Haneberg’s data.

Of the 48 percent with an SMI flag who returned to jail within six months of being released, 38 percent were brought back to jail because they missed a court appearance.

In addition, 30 percent of those who had an MH flag and 20 percent of those with neither also returned to the jail within six months. It’s not clear from Haneberg’s data how many of them were charged with failure to appear, but according to a January news release from the county, that charge accounted for 28.6 percent of the 5,353 total bookings in 2017.

In an effort to curb the failure to appear rate, the county’s Criminal Justice Services started using a program called CE Pretrial in December. It notifies defendants of upcoming court dates through phone calls or text messages, similar to what health care providers use to remind patients of appointments.

But that system only notifies those who are on pretrial release. According to recent jail population updates from the county, that number has lingered around 100 or 110 over the past month or so.

It doesn’t help those who are convicted and released from jail on probation, for instance.

“Because of the issues they’re facing, they fall off the radar and they’re not coming in to report,” said Douglas County District Court Chief Judge Peggy Kittel. “We don’t have a good address for them, or phone number, and that’s when the bench warrants go out for the failures to appear.”

The courts can offer bus passes to aid in transportation to appearances, but some at the CJCC meeting said that’s not enough.

“Transportation is consistently a barrier to accessing services for folks that are already involved in the criminal justice system that we’re talking about, but (also for) those that aren’t,” said Jill Jolicoeur, assistant to the Douglas County administrator. “So I think for a couple of reasons, we would love to dig a little deeper into what other communities are doing, beyond bus passes.”

Patrick Schmitz, CEO of Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, said the center’s staff often hears from clients that even a 20-minute appointment can be a three- or four-hour ordeal if they’re depending on the public transit system to get around.

Haneberg said it’s a recurring theme across the country, but she will look into models that have been more successful.

Looking ahead: Recommendations

The CSG’s recommendations aren’t yet finalized, and that report will have to be reviewed by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, so the exact timeline is unclear.

However, Haneberg did present some preliminary recommendations to the CJCC on Tuesday. Among them:

• Ensure that everyone receives a pretrial risk assessment to inform release and supervision decisions, and that everyone with SMI is connected to treatment services upon release.

• Use mental health and substance use screening results to inform decisions about jail population management, behavioral health services within the jail and re-entry planning.

• Enhance capacity to provide community-based behavioral health care for those with SMI who are released from jail.

• Develop a plan to boost successful completion of supervision and minimize revocations for those with SMI.

• Develop a system and track all of the data pertinent to the Stepping Up Initiative’s four key outcomes.

The next CJCC meeting will be May 14. That is Haneberg’s last planned visit to Douglas County.

Contact Mackenzie Clark

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