Forum Recap: Behavioral Health and Justice: Working Together, Looking Ahead

Tags: Health

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The connection between behavioral health and justice systems is strong: An estimated 2 million people with serious mental illnesses are booked into county jails each year and estimates are that almost three-quarters of inmates with serious mental illnesses have co-occurring substance use disorders. Justice and behavioral health systems must collaborate and communicate to effectively treat this population. This session discussed the current state of behavioral health and justice, examined how county agencies are currently working to tackle this issue, and offered insights into how these agencies can improve their efforts in the future.

Speakers in this session included Former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, Co-Founder of One Mind for Research and Founder of Kennedy Forum and Hon. Steve Leifman, Associate Administrative Judge in the Miami-Dade County Court Criminal Division and Special Advisor on Criminal Justice and Mental Health for the Supreme Court of Florida. The session was moderated by Ms. Pat Ryan, Former Executive Director of the California Mental Health Directors Association (CMHDA).

Key takeaways from the session include:

  • An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Judge Leifman discussed a study of the cost of mental illness to a community. County residents with mental illnesses are the most costly to the community because of the multiple systems to which they are connected, including the criminal justice system, mental health system and other systems providing social services. The problem with the cost of mental illness becomes bigger when community systems ar e not working together to address the needs of residents with mental illnesses. Judge Leifman passionately stated, "The goal here is not to build a better criminal justice system. The goal is to develop a better community system." When community systems are integrated, real savings to the county can be realized and a difference can be made.

  • County commissioners and supervisors can play an important role in leading change. As check writers for county departments, commissioners and supervisors need to understand how taxpayer dollars are spent and the outcomes associated with that spending. Because of the number of systems involved in providing care and services to residents with mental illness, and the disconnect between these systems, budget analysis is critical to improving the coordination of mental health treatment and can result in smarter county spending.

  • County leadership is necessary for building evidence and bringing federal attention to the issue of mental illness in the criminal justice system. Bringing about change is not easy, especially when it requires bringing many players and stakeholders to the table, aligning priorities and putting plans into action. But these steps are necessary and change is possible. It is only to the extent that counties make it a priority and take action to reduce the number of people with mental illness in the criminal justice system that we will have the data and evidence to support federal legislation.


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