CNCounty News

Florida county jail addresses mental health crisis

County officials from around the country visit the Orange County, Fla. jail Oct. 6 at the LUCC Symposium. Photo by Mike Davies, Orange County, Fla. Corrections

Key Takeaways

Orange County, Fla.’s Belvin Perry Jr. Central Receiving Center diverts people experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis from incarceration, connecting them to care and resources, while also relieving hospital emergency departments and reducing recidivism and jail costs. 

With 46% of its population diagnosed with a mental illness, Orange County Jail is the largest mental health facility in Central Florida. 

The Central Receiving Center acts as a “one-stop shop,” according to Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings. Those experiencing a crisis there are assessed and connected to the appropriate services by the public behavioral health and substance abuse services provider Aspire Health Partners.

Aspire Health Partners provides inpatient crisis stabilization as well as follow-up services including case management, counseling, medication management and assistance in employment and housing. Over the past two years, there’s been a 37% increase in the number of people brought into the center experiencing homelessness. 

Since it opened 20 years ago, the Central Receiving Center has screened more than 99,000 clients and saved roughly 310,000 jail bed days and 44,000 emergency department bed days. 

Demings emphasized Orange County’s focus on re-entry “from day one” and the importance of acknowledging humanity in the criminal justice system. 

The majority of the people going through the Orange County Justice System will return to the community, and it benefits everyone in the county if they’re provided the tools to be set up for success upon release, he said. 

One of the ways Orange County is accomplishing that is through administering the three FDA-approved medications for opioid use disorder — Methadone, Buprenorphine and Naltrexone. 

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, medication-assisted treatment (MAT) reduces criminal activity, recidivism, disease rates and overdose events in justice-involved individuals, however only 53% of drug court programs allow the medications as part of their participants’ treatment and many jails require complete withdrawal from inmates, leading to dangerous consequences and higher rates of opioid-related deaths upon release. 

Tackling the stigma of substance use disorder is an essential step in increasing justice system outcomes, according to Donna P. Wyche, manager of Orange County Health Services Department’s mental health and homelessness division. 

The state of Florida has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the country, and its justice-involved population has more than tripled since 1970, according to research by the University of Florida Race and Crime Center for Justice. Since Orange County implemented the Central Receiving Center model, however, its average daily jail population has gone down from 3,783 in 2002 to 2,357 in 2022. 

Pierce County, Wash. Councilmember Robyn Denson said she was impressed with the “innovative and forward-thinking” work being done in the Orange County Justice System, particularly in the Central Receiving Center, as showcased in the tour of the facilities at NACo’s Large Urban County Caucus Symposium.

“It helps ensure people needing assistance get to the right place with the right resources and services,” Denson said. “Jail is not the right place for many people experiencing a mental health crisis and the jail environment could escalate an already bad situation.”

While law enforcement officers could otherwise spend hours in an emergency room or jail waiting for the individual suffering a mental health or substance use crisis to be booked or receive care, officers spend on average 12 minutes at the Central Receiving Center per visit, which Denson said would be a huge benefit to Pierce County if it was adopted. 

“Pierce County, Washington also suffers from similar law enforcement staffing shortages as that faced by Orange County, so … this [would] enable our law enforcement officers to get back on patrol and respond to other calls.”

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