County News

Finding answers, together, to justice system challenges

County leaders take notes during a Justice Peer Exchange meeting in Multnomah County, Ore., held April 11-12. Officials from around the country swapped justice system successes and challenges at the meetup. Photo by Vernon Smith

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Multnomah County’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion connects individuals with low-level drug offenses to an intensive case management system to reduce racial disparities among individuals charged with possession of controlled substances

County leaders gathered recently in Multnomah County, Ore. to learn how the county is improving its justice system and to share successes and challenges they face at home.

In all, 20 county leaders participated April 11-12 in a Justice Peer Exchange supported through the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation as part of the Safety and Justice Challenge. The Safety and Justice Challenge supports counties and other local leaders to safely reduce jail populations across the country.

Multnomah County has developed initiatives to address the needs of its justice-involved population, including establishing in 2017 the Local Public Safety Coordinating Council (LPSCC) to better connect and plan local criminal justice policy among affected criminal justice entities.

Chaired by Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, the council is made up of justice stakeholders including representatives from the sheriff’s office, the courts, the Department of Community Justice, the Department of Human Services and the County Mental Health and Addiction Services. The council holds monthly meetings to discuss and promote engagement on public safety-related operations in the community. The overall goal is to safely reduce reliance on jails and find better alternatives than jail for individuals. The council also focuses on reducing racial and ethnic disparities in the county’s justice system.

Participants also learned about the county’s diversion efforts for low-level offenders. In 2017, Multnomah County implemented its Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program to help connect individuals with low-level drug offenses to an intensive case management system, as part of its efforts to reduce racial disparities among individuals charged with possession of controlled substances.

The county has trained 20 officers to identify individuals who could be good candidates for this program. Multnomah County works in collaboration with Central City Concern, a local human services non-profit, to conduct case management for the program participants. Since its induction, the program has seen 179 participants, and as a result the program helped or resolved 81 percent of legal needs for participants. Also, the program connected or actively engaged 93 percent of individuals to mental health care services.

To have a better understanding of the justice-involved population, the county acquired the services of the Research and Planning section of the Department of Community Justice to create a dashboard for the Multnomah County’s Sheriff’s Office. The sheriff’s office looks at different trends, demographics and outcomes of individuals in the community to keep the county informed by results that are data-driven. County justice staff can use the tool to tell a story from the data, which can help the county determine how to make programs and stakeholders work more effectively toward a common solution.

Justice-involved individuals who have a mental illness have also been a target population for Multnomah County. The county reports that 30 percent of adults screened in custody have a mental health diagnosis. To address this population, Multnomah County adopted Mental Health Diversion as a strategy with a case management approach to ensure a continuum of care. Probation staff divert individuals who show symptoms of mental illness to behavioral health treatment and other services through a social services navigator. The navigator oversees peer connections, transportation assistance and referral to services that help meet the needs of the individual.

“First and foremost, at the Sheriff’s Office we want to make sure we are treating people with dignity, compassion and respect ... One, it’s the right thing to do and two, we see better outcomes,” Sheriff Mike Reese explained.

Exchange participants wrapped up the first day of the meeting by observing Judge Nan Waller preside over a mental health court. The specialty court is designed to reduce criminal activity for individuals experiencing mental health issues. Through this specialized treatment court, individuals are assigned a case manager who monitors and works with that individual to connect them with housing, medication management and health care.  Waller highlighted the successes that the individuals experienced that week.

Waller also oversees the county’s “aid and assist” docket, for defendants who appear unable to aid in their own defense. The county put in place a process for rapidly evaluating the competency of detained individuals, including working with area psychologists. As a result, 253 defendants have been evaluated and the county saw an estimated $1.1 million savings in custodial costs. 

Multnomah County is also working to create culturally informed solutions to address the racial and ethnic disparities in its community, including by opening the Diane Wade House, which provides African American women with safe housing and services that are trauma-informed and gender and culturally responsive.

Erika Preuitt, director of the Department of Community Justice, explained: “We believe in racial equity and so that was one of our key drivers in how we create some type of a solution or response that truly meets the needs of the African American community, more specifically women.”

With the help from Bridges to Change, a mentorship program that helps individuals seek substance abuse disorder treatment, the county has been able to create an inclusive environment where women are able to share their experiences with peers and engage in services that put them on the path to success. Every detail designed at the Diane Wade House is thoughtfully curated, from its location and decor to its activities and to the resources it has to offer its residents.

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