There is no question that the political climate right now is complex. The number of police-related shootings is a national concern. The number of minorities in prison compared to non-minorities is astounding. There are ways to change this, however. The future of policing will be in diverting people to proper community resources. Jail diversion is vital for the police to strategically and successfully deal with people suffering from addiction and or mental health issues. Let us be honest this is not what law enforcement signed up for. They are champions of public safety and not social workers. Nevertheless, we are on the cusp of significant change in how offenders are treated.
The large numbers of mentally ill and addicted people arrested for low-level crimes are not making our communities safer. It gives the public the illusion that things are safer, but that is not the case. Police are also consistently arresting people with mental health issues. Why? Because what is their alternative? They can bring them to a hospital that is not equipped fully for mental health. They can let them go and will likely have to pick them up again for similar disturbances. If they end up in jail while awaiting trial or get convicted and go to jail, they will get very little meaningful treatment or care. What if they could bring them to alternative destinations like a mental health clinic or a substance abuse center?
Who Benefits From Diverting People from Jail?
Simply put, everyone does. Having another option besides arresting people helps everyone involved. The police will have better resources and better knowledge to help people, especially someone suffering from addiction or mental health issues. Not arresting people unnecessarily saves time and money and supports the most marginalized and underserved populations, such as minorities and people suffering from mental health issues or addiction. Offering people treatment and care as opposed to jail is critical. Programs doing just this are popping up all over the country.
Jail diversion would also be incredibly beneficial for the juvenile population. At any given time, there are around 60,000 people under 18 incarcerated in juvenile jails in the United States. The consequences of taking adults away from their families and their support systems are dire. Imagine how hard it is for a child. Juveniles are locked up every day for minor offences directly related to acute mental health crises. That can and should change immediately. Connecting juvenile offenders with proper treatment, mentors, and people who care about their well-being would not only help them but would benefit the community as well. Instead of focusing on turning children into prisoners, we should be spending time and energy helping them become healthy and productive members of society.
Treatment In Jail is Subpar, If It Even Exists
Many arrests deal with people suffering from mental illness or addiction. Arresting people for selling drugs is not always automatically going to make our communities much safer. The people selling on the streets are often low-level dealers selling drugs to feed their habits. They are not the kingpins running large drug empires. Putting these people in jail may make some people feel better, but it does not create a safer community. It often will not rehabilitate the person who is sitting in jail without adequate care and treatment. Even if they get the drug or mental health treatment in jail, it is almost always subpar. Incarceration often makes low-level “criminals” worse, not better. Then they get out of jail and inevitably commit more severe crimes than before. Why? Because now they may have lost whatever job, housing, or family support that they had before they were incarcerated.
Aside from inadequate substance abuse and mental health treatment in jails and prisons, the overall conditions of many jails and prisons are abysmal. They are tremendously overcrowded, and prisoners are often deprived of basic fundamental human rights. Physical attacks and sexual assaults are rampant in jails and prisons. Prisoners are often underfed and are treated worse than many of us could ever imagine. The disease runs rampant in the prisons due to inadequate medical treatment and severe overcrowding in such small spaces. Some of the conditions in jails and prisons in the United States are so bad that it puts people’s lives in danger every day. Most people do not even give it a second thought.
They Broke The Law – Shouldn’t There Be Consequences?
Of course, the consequences do not have to be jail or prison as the go-to solution. People sometimes make serious mistakes, but is it helpful if the consequences cause them to lose their job. After all, they are stuck in jail because they cannot afford bail? This does not help the offender or the community. Locking someone in jail does not rehabilitate them. If jails and prisons had better human services, it might be a different conversation, but they do not. If the conditions in jails were more oriented towards rehabilitation rather than punishment, or if we as a society could find a better alternative to prison, shouldn’t we try to do that?
Being incarcerated and torn away from your friends, family, job, home, and any community support you have is not only counterproductive, but it is also very traumatic. If there is a way to help someone while also making the community safer, that is what we should be aiming for. There is no reason for everything to be punitive if there can be a better way. We do not live in a world where an eye for an eye makes sense in all situations. It is time to start treating people like human beings, even if they have committed a crime. When someone has committed a non-violent, low-level offence, jail is not always the best answer. When a mentally ill person is in crisis, prison is not the answer. We need to make mental health and addiction resources more readily available.
It is also important to note that incarcerating people in the United States is exorbitantly expensive. If we as a community spent some of that money on creating proper resources and then connecting people in need with those programs, our money would be better spent. Suppose we used some of that money on mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment, and community services. In that case, people might get the help they need before they wind up in jail.
When we imprison people and do not help them deal with any underlying issues that may have contributed to them committing a crime, we are just delaying the inevitable. Eventually, most people get out of jail. When they do, they have often lost so much, especially that feeling of connection with their communities. It can feel almost impossible to pick up the pieces and put their lives back together. Unsurprisingly, they continue to suffer from addiction or mental health issues and then commit more crimes. The cycle starts all over again.
Reframe The Conversation
There is hope. Many communities are finding new ways to keep people from being incarcerated. New innovative programs are starting all over the country. The 2nd annual National Co-Responder Conference brought in over three hundred professionals from law enforcement and behavioural health. Law enforcement agencies are training their whole department in CIT(Crisis Intervention Training). Jail diversion programs are starting in many cities with progressive policing. All of these new programs are incubators for what the future will bring. In the past, law enforcement would lock them up because they made a mistake. Instead, now law enforcement, behavioural health, and local community partners are finding what would be best for them and society as a whole. There has been the narrative that drug addicts and mentally ill people are bad people, worthless, and dangerous for too long. They cannot be rehabilitated, and we should lock them all up to break their habit. This is not true, and new innovative policies are emerging. The criminal justice system has to change and is changing, but as a society, we all have to change as well. Instead of asking what punishment is appropriate for someone who needs help, we should be trying to figure out how we can help them. The change starts with all of us. Learning to treat people with dignity and respect, even if they have committed a crime, has to be part of that change.
So What Should The Police Do Instead?
The entire policing system is evolving, but there are things that specific police districts could do quickly and right away to start making changes. Instead of automatically arresting people who commit low-level, non-violent offences and may be struggling with addiction and mental illness. Law Enforcement should be trained to connect them with the resources that can help. If they have a mental illness, the police should connect them with community resources that can help address those mental health concerns. If the person is suffering from addiction, the police should connect them with drug treatment services.
In many cases, jail can be the last resort, not the first option. In the past, police chiefs and sheriffs would highlight their high number of arrests. On the other now progressive police chiefs highlight the number of people they diverted to proper services. Change for the better is here.
One way to implement these ideas into real-life change is to take advantage of the systems, programs, and software that already exist. For example, Julota enables communities to better address mental health issues, substance abuse, and emergency interventions. At the same time, this software can help expand the impact of limited community resources by connecting people to the right service, with the right resources, at the right time. Software like this allows police officers to quickly check and see if space is available at a local mental health clinic or substance abuse center. If there is space available, the officers can alert the facility that they are on the way, which is all done electronically. All of this while connecting right to law enforcement’s CAD system. An arrest can be avoided.
Additionally, the officers can see if they are already working with other community services when they encounter them on the scene. If they are, the police will reach out to someone – a counsellor, for instance – who works at that place and let them know what is going on. Information is helpful because then the police officers know exactly where they can bring someone instead of arresting them. If there is no arrest, much less damage is also done to a person’s life, allowing them to recover and reintegrate into society much more quickly. As a society and a connected community, we all win.