As an attorney and former Assistant Public Defender, one way in which I believe I can enhance the role of Boone County Commissioner is to bring my experience to bear on our local criminal justice system and to link local government efforts with private and public non-profit entities to yield a far greater impact than any one entity can achieve on its own.
It’s frustrating for citizens—and governmental officials alike—to see what appears to be revolving prison and jail doors, as the same individuals show up again and again within the criminal justice system. Each year, more than 450 prior offenders released from Missouri prisons return to Boone County and, of those, nearly half cycle back into prison within two years. The toll this takes on our community, on taxpayers, on the safety of our citizens—not to mention the impact on the lives of so many family members of repeat offenders—is huge.
But, as Dan Hanneken, Executive Director of Columbia’s In2Action program, likes to say, the old way of thinking about how to keep those released from incarceration from further contact with the criminal justice system just doesn’t work. The solutions we so often hear—“if they don’t have a job, nothing else matters,” “if they don’t have a place to live, nothing else matters,” “if they can’t get off of drugs, nothing else matters”––come
from the unique perspectives of the employment experts, the housing experts, the addiction experts. The crux of the matter is that those needs require rapid and often simultaneous attention.
Last week, I spent some time with Dan Hanneken, whose In2Action program provides a hands-on re-entry approach for men returning from prison to Boone County, providing housing and supportive services. In2Action recently purchased another house to be used for these men as they develop the skills necessary for effective, and hopefully, lasting, re-entry into the community. As Dan can attest, housing is a critical component of any re-entry program. By investing in this additional house, In2Action has invested in the lives of more individuals who are returning to our community.
Earlier this summer, a woman called me. I could hear the panic in her voice. Her daughter, who had been scheduled to be released from the Boone County Jail later that day, had been released early. This meant that a young woman with mental health and related substance use challenges had returned to the streets of Boone County, without the resources she needed to cope with those challenges. It also meant that it was significantly more likely that she would wind up back in jail. Fortunately, the woman was able to find her daughter, and, with the assistance of local resources, her daughter is far more likely to resolve her legal issues without further justice involvement.
A couple of weeks ago, a visitor to the Boone County Government Center approached several offices with limited access (in the midst of the pandemic) and tried to enter, but couldn’t articulate what he needed from those offices. The next day, he returned, indicating that he knew radio and TV transmissions were coming into his head and asked for help in getting the transmissions turned off. Again, I received a call. The Department Director asked for help.
Fortunately, I am aware of the mental health resources available in the community, so I reached out to Sgt. Tracey Cleeton, who directs the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training for the Sheriff’s Department and is part of the CIT leadership in Missouri. Sgt. Cleeton, in turn, connected the individual with those acutely needed services.
One of the resources that Sgt. Cleeton could access was a Community Mental Health Liaison (CMHL), designated by the Missouri Department of Mental Health and working through a local mental health care provider to help individuals with behavioral health challenges. From its inception, this critical resource position was assigned to a ten-county-wide area in Mid-Missouri. As the needs became ever more obvious, it became clear that I had to become an advocate—or perhaps a one-woman band—for a CMHL devoted to Boone County. I am pleased that diligence paid off.
In 2019, Burrell Behavioral Health, which manages the program at the local level, set aside funding for 2020 and beyond for a CMHL dedicated to serve Boone and Randolph Counties. So, now, in Boone County, when someone like Sgt. Cleeton calls for the assistance of a CMHL, he doesn’t have to wait his turn behind nine other counties. That resource is and remains focused on the people of Boone County.
These are but three of the pieces of quilt that provide solutions for those struggling to find their way out of the revolving door of the criminal justice system. The quilt is comprised of not-for-profit organizations, health care systems, government, and, yes, people. Does it have gaps? Indeed, it does. The work is far from complete. But now it is stronger, more widely accepted, and more pervasive because we are working together, collaborating, sharing resources and investing in best practices.
There is much to be thankful for in Boone County. For me, this type of collaboration is among our greatest assets and speaks to the important role of county government in making it happen.