Especially during election seasons, people (primarily candidates!!) are more than willing to take the lion’s share of the credit for projects and ideas. This seems true even when their involvement is as light as the touch of a butterfly’s wing. Yesterday, however, was a great example of success brought about by the participation and commitment of many people, whose collaborative spirit truly make a difference.
In 2014, Boone County joined the Stepping Up Initiative, a project championed by the National Association of Counties (NACo) and the American Psychiatric Association. Its purpose was to address the over-representation in the criminal justice system of individuals with mental health challenges. As a long-time, former Public Defender, I had seen the issue “up close and personal” through the lives and experiences of clients over the years. And, even prior to chairing the County-wide Judicial and Law Enforcement Task Force, so had Rusty Antel. In his decades-long history of representing individuals involved in the criminal justice system, he had seen and tried to address the issues related to those individuals with mental health challenges who represent a disproportionate involvement in the system.
When the county joined the Stepping Up Initiative, Rusty and I began the process of bringing together all of the stakeholders to gain a better understanding of the issues involved—from their multiple perspectives—as well as what resources we could bring to bear to develop solutions.
Among the issues that we quickly recognized was the disproportionate amount of time individuals with mental health challenges spend in our county jail as compared to those charged with the same offenses but without a similar mental health history.
The data was clear, but the question became:
How could we reduce the days in jail (a huge and ongoing cost for the county) AND keep the community safe AND obtain a better outcome for the individuals involved?
Little did we know that Rusty’s question posed during one of our brainstorming sessions would spur progress toward finding a piece of the solution:
“I wonder if we could bring everyone together to talk about these cases and see if they could be moved more quickly and efficiently.”
Since we were in the midst of a NACo-organized project, it was only logical that I contact NACo to see if any other county had already invented that particular model.
The NACo staff in charge of Stepping Up suggested that I contact two counties that had been heavily involved in justice-related activities. The first county contact said, “No, we don’t have a program like that but, if you create it, please let us know. We’d love to try it out.”
With the second county contacted––in Johnson County, Iowa––we found the wheel has been invented. Not only did they HAVE such a program, they were willing to share information and provide contacts within their county who could help us in setting up a program.
So, Rusty and I met with two local Boone County judges to gauge their interest and willingness to take on one more project––Chris Carpenter, who was the Presiding Circuit Judge at that time, and Leslie Schneider, a well-respected Judge in the Circuit without a criminal docket and who therefore would not have to recuse herself on any cases. We discussed Rusty’s idea and the Johnson County model with the two judges and they agreed to bring it to the entire court (the court en banc) for a decision about whether to proceed.
Judges Carpenter and Schneider also reached out to the judge assigned to the project in Iowa to better understand how the model worked. The judges quickly rallied behind the idea, since, in Johnson County, the three goals we had articulated had been met––fewer days in jail, community safety maintained, and better outcomes obtained for the individuals. With their blessing, we had the green light to bring the rest of the stakeholders on board.
Members of the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office were enthusiastic about the project from the beginning. They signed up to be the conduits for that office for information and negotiation. Similarly, members of the Boone County Public Defender’s Office, including the District Defender, quickly came on board, as did members of the local defense bar. Sheriff Carey immediately authorized members of his corrections staff, including the Jail Administrator, to participate in the program, and the then relatively new Treatment Court Commissioner, Casey Clevenger, and her administrator became part of the team as well. Also, an integral part of the team was the mental health professional at the jail itself. These stakeholder representatives were joined by the court administrator, who monitored and coordinated the group’s activities.
Each member of the group was given the opportunity to speak with their counterpart in Johnson County IA, to understand how the program had been implemented in their jurisdiction, and to learn from their experience. Because mental health information would be shared among participants, everyone involved signed a Business Associate Agreement, to address confidentiality concerns.
Some three years after first joining the Stepping Up Initiative, the group still meets twice each month. In times of COVID-19, meetings are held by conference call or Zoom to discuss individuals referred to the group by judges, lawyers (both defense counsel and prosecutors), family members, jail personnel, mental health personnel, or by the individuals themselves. Just as in the Iowa experiment, the process has become ever better as the stakeholders have become more confident in themselves and in their colleagues.
As members have seen the commitment to the three goals solidify for all involved, their confidence in the process has grown as well. They know that nobody at the table is working an angle and no one is using the process for personal or agency gain. As the goals are realized, so too is the process validated. The successes seen for individuals have become successes shared by the group.
Yesterday was just one more case in point. One member of the group sent an email concerning an individual who simply couldn’t function within the jail setting because of mental health issues. With our three goals ever in mind and with community safety ensured, everyone involved worked to find a better, more appropriate placement for that individual.
This is not just government functioning at its finest. This is community working at its best. And it began with one simple question: “How can we do this better?”