Douglas County to celebrate reduction of people with mental illness booked into jail

photo by: Journal-World File Photo

The Douglas County Jail is shown in this Journal-World file photo from February 2015.

Douglas County has reduced the number of people with serious mental illness booked into the local jail by 56% since October 2015, according to a news release from the county.

Now it’s helping other counties in the state make similar strides, local criminal justice leaders told the Douglas County Commission at its Wednesday meeting.

That reduction is in large part related to programs the county has launched since joining the national Stepping Up initiative at that time. It’s also one of the reasons the county will celebrate with a community recognition program from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 14, at the Cider Gallery, 810 Pennsylvania St.

Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinator Robert Bieniecki and Mike Brouwer, reentry director for the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, spoke briefly during the County Commission’s Wednesday meeting as the commission proclaimed May 2019 the Stepping Up Month of Action. It’s also Mental Health Month.

“Once incarcerated, individuals with mental illnesses tend to stay longer in jail, and upon release are at a higher risk of returning to being incarcerated than those without mental illness,” Bieniecki said during the meeting.

Stepping Up Community Recognition event

When: 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 14

Where: Cider Gallery, 810 Pennsylvania St.

Brouwer said the county’s intensive data work through the Stepping Up initiative has revealed key statistics, such as the 56% reduction in people with mental illness booked into the jail. Now that work is also providing a template for other Kansas counties that have signed onto the initiative, including Lyon and Riley, both of which use the same jail management systems and screening tools that Douglas County uses, he said.

Brouwer also said officials from Reno County have visited, as it’s in the process of starting a mental health co-responder program similar to the one the Lawrence Police Department runs in partnership with Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center.

“We’re really hoping to continue to not just do the work here, but to help other counties in Kansas,” Brouwer told the commission.

Tuesday’s community recognition program will include a panel of some leaders in local law enforcement and mental health, who will discuss community efforts and next steps: Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson; Lawrence Police Department Sgt. Ryan Halsted, who supervises the mental health co-response team; Douglas County District Court Judge Sally Pokorny, who presides over the behavioral health court; Nicole Rials, director of urgent care programs at Bert Nash; and Bob Tryanski, the county’s director of behavioral health projects.

The nationwide Stepping Up program was launched by the Council of State Governments Justice Center (CSG), the National Association of Counties and the American Psychiatric Association Foundation, according to the county’s news release.

In 2014, 18% of those in the jail were identified as having a serious mental illness; in 2018, that number was 8%. The national average is 17%, according to the release.

The CSG’s data “deep dive” has also helped the county identify some ongoing areas of focus. For instance, the Journal-World reported in March that failure to appear for court dates has been a significant problem for people with mental illness who have been released from the jail, often resulting in a return to the jail.

A full report from the CSG will include recommendations to further improve statistics and outcomes. As reported in March, that report has to be reviewed by the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance, so the exact timeline for its release is unclear.

Contact Mackenzie Clark

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