Jail diversion corrects the system

A young man overdoses, and is so far gone that six doses of Narcan are required to bring him back to life.

That night, the 21-year-old cried for hours because “he wanted to stop and didn’t know how,” his parents said.

He is caught with meth the next day by a deputy who recognizes him as the young man who almost died the night before.

If insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result, then many of the systems designed to rehabilitate aren’t mentally sound.

Locking up nonviolent offenders with mental and substance use disorders neither uses resources wisely nor is it moral. That’s why it’s imperative that the responders who deal with life’s hard cases have options — and the wherewithal and support to use them.

Jail diversion, which formally started in the last few years, is built on a startlingly simple foundation — use what we know about human behavior to prevent or limit incarceration. To go to the root of the problem – the diagnosis, the addiction used to mask the diagnosis, the lack of life skills and accountability – with a caring navigator.

Locally, this is late in coming – in 1996 Michigan’s Mental Health Code required community mental health to “provide services designed to divert persons with serious mental illness, serious emotional disturbance, or developmental disability from possible jail incarceration when appropriate.”

Our program just started.

We understand that getting a functional jail diversion off the ground takes a massive amount of caring and coordination. It takes money and people. It takes rigorous and transparent data collection and accountability every step of the way.

But the short-term investment seems to yield results, in both human and financial terms.

U.S incarcerates more people per capita than any other country. Numbers-wise, only China incarcerates more than our 1.2 million prisoners with a population four times our size, according to the New York Law Journal.

Recidivism rates also shock: Nearly half (44 percent) of those released from prison return in a year, and 70 percent are back within five years.

Jail diversion rates appear to be better, even though data is slow in coming and statistics are limited.

A 2012 study of Michigan mental health courts showed that 6.3 percent of participants who successfully completed the diversion program were charged with a new offense, compared with 16.5 percent of those who did not, the Journal article read.

In Grand Traverse County, where we officially started jail diversion in 2021-2022, 108 people with criminal charges or who were at risk for incarceration completed the program through probation and parole in 2023. Of those, 24 re-violated and several have since re-entered jail diversion.

Some may go through jail diversion programs as many as four times, a local expert said.

Florida, the first state that invested in jail diversion 30 years ago, was able to close a Miami prison, saving millions.

Getting to the bottom of mental health and substance use is a time-intensive practice, but it can work — and it can take people out of the washing machine-churn of the correctional system, for good.

That is what the system was built for, to correct.

Now we need to correct our systems by making these programs as healthy as possible.


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