ELYRIA – The county commissioners decided to “step up” Wednesday by proclaiming the day one of action for a national initiative for reducing the number of mentally people in jails.
Commissioner Lori Kokoski said the program, known as “Stepping Up,” is one the county has been focusing on since 2016.
“Unfortunately people with mental illness when they go to jail they get worse as they stay there,” she said. “When we first started this too we were talking about people with addictions and they actually get better while in jail because they don’t have the access to the drugs that they did before.”
The commissioners unanimously proclaimed May 16, 2018 “Stepping Up Day of Action” and Lorain County Sheriff’s Office Project Specialist Melissa Myers Fisher said Lorain County was one of 437 nationally doing the same thing.
Fisher said the four goals of the program are to reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in the county jail, increase the connections that are made available to inmates, reduce time served in jail and reduce the rate of recidivism.
“Stepping Up gives a platform for a lot of conversations to happen and the sharing of information,” she said. “It’s about better linking people to services while improving public safety in fiscally responsible ways.”
Fisher said one of the biggest components to Stepping Up is the data that is collected as it helps inform major decisions and while there are still a few unknowns, they’re currently in the process of putting together a dashboard regarding mental health statistics at the jail.
“It costs $69 per day to house an inmate in the county jail,” she said. “It’s believed this is higher for those who are mentally ill as they require additional staff services. Our return to jail rate is 19 percent and it’s also anticipated that this is higher for those in the mentally ill population. The average length of stay is 13 days and 75 percent is incarcerated for less than 30 days. Again, this is expected to be higher for the severe mentally ill.”
Fisher also cited statistics from inmates at the county jail, which are self-reported, in which of the more than 700 people booked into the jail every month, 8 percent report a psychiatric disorder and 5 percent report previous suicide attempts.
Fisher said the program is also looking into supportive housing and Common Pleas Court Judge Chris Cook said the court is in talks to add a special docket dealing with mental illness.
“The Common Pleas Court is doing everything it can to support this initiative,” he said. “We’re seriously looking at a mental health court docket, which would be similar to the veterans court and recovery court to assist those with serious mental health illnesses. Judge Jim Miraldi and I are sort of spear-heading that and hopefully we have some information shortly.”
At the commissioners meeting Wednesday, Crisis Intervention Team officers were recognized, including Lorain County Adult Probation Officer Bridget Novak, who was awarded CIT Officer of the Year.
“I was really flattered and surprised to be nominated for CIT officer of the year but I share this award with Cassie Spears and Dena Baker, my two partners in CIT outreach,” she said. “I’m very thankful to be a Lorain County Probation Officer. We’re changing the way we do things and it’s working and I’m excited to be a part of it.”
Novak said the probation officers are going out and specifically meeting with people on their caseloads who have mental illnesses to make sure they have everything they need.
“We go and meet with folks who have mental illness and we make sure they’re linked up their doctors and therapists and they have their prescriptions,” she said. “We try to let them know we’re a safety net for them. We’re in the business of recreating relationships between law enforcement and people who have had bad experiences with law enforcement because of mental illness.”
Lorain Count Board of Mental Health Special Projects Coordinator Holly Cundiff said Novak was one of five nominations for Officer of the Year, which is in its third year and departments are really starting to buy into it.
“Our CIT program continues to grow and become stronger as we move forward,” she said. “Bridget has started her own initiative to reach out to people with mental health problems that are on the probation docket and she will go out to get to know the people on her caseload.”