Commentary: When a district judge reached for a reliable tool recently, it was suddenly gone.
The tool was Forensic Intervention Consortium of Doña Ana County, better known as jail diversion (JD), a local nonprofit that saves us big bucks every year.
JD helps seriously mentally ill people referred by law enforcement, the courts, the detention center, lawyers, and/or clinical providers. They may or may not have been diagnosed, and often fall through the cracks. JD makes sure they get to court, or meet with a lawyer or counselor. Just finding these folks can be a challenge. Judges consult JD regarding appropriate conditions for pretrial release – then rely on JD for monitoring.
JD does something special – efficiently and inexpensively. Judges, corrections officers, and others say the group serves an important public function.
The State has stopped funding JD. The State was contributing upwards of $200,000 annually, the County $75-80,000, and the City nothing (inappropriately, since city police bear the biggest burden of dealing with JD's clientele. When the funding disappeared on July 1, JD was serving upwards of 400 people. Its absence has been felt by clients and the officials who deal with them.
Police and DASO deputies spend a lot of time on these folks. We pay the detention center to house and feed people who are held pending trial. Each “marginal” defendant who misses a court date for urinating in the street sparks a warrant, more charges, and interest – money most can't ever pay. So the person is imprisoned for a longer time for evading trial. A vicious cycle. Keeping even some people from missing court dates saves the authorities more than JD's annual budget.
The State wants JD to become eligible to bill Medicaid; but JD's services can't be billed to Medicaid. These aren't office appointments billed by the quarter-hour. JD would have to become a different entity. Eligibility would take at least a year.
Imagine (meaning no disrespect) if we defunded animal control, and demanded it qualify to bill for veterinary services? Instead of collecting stray dogs or responding to calls about feral cats, the animal control folks would wait in an office.
The County also pulled its funding.
There's talk of “something else” replacing JD; but that “something” ain't here yet, and doesn't know the clientele and the community as JD does; and the County's current mental-health service, while highly worthwhile, doesn't serve the people JD does.
JD gets people to court or to needed services. It needn't be judge, lawyer, doctor, or psychiatrist. It needs to be what it is: quick, nimble, experienced and effective. More, it knows and cares about its clientele.
I haven't yet heard any real justification for the State's action. Sometimes we destroy something that works just because we didn't invent it.
Still, there's hope. A group of professionals dealing with criminal law problems is listening. So are state legislators. The State Behavioral Health Division will soon meet with JD, and maybe misunderstandings can be corrected. (The former Human Services Director, Wayne Lindstrom, has left.) The County is preparing an RFP, but until that's issued and responded to, and choices are made, it's no help – assuming it would address this particular need.
These government offices should rethink this matter, and provide at least bridge funding. Soon!
Jail diversion is an effective local service. Let's not lose it, and spend more money, while seriously mentally ill people go untreated.