As the Project Manager for the Justice & Mental Health Initiatives at Superior Court of Fulton County, what are some of the important projects that you all are doing under these initiatives?
About 5 years ago, our county adopted the Stepping Up Initiative, a national initiative to reduce the number of people with mental illness in jail. Local leaders wanted to do something about the volume of people with mental illness in our jails, and the Stepping Up Initiative offered us the framework that we felt like we needed.
The superior court was awarded a Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Program grant to get us some technical support to do the work, and we did a Sequential Intercept Model Mapping Workshop in 2017 to start that planning process. To make sure we heard everybody’s voice as we developed a systemic solution to the problem, our agency convened a task force: a broad group of stakeholders, including justice partners, folks with lived experience, and advocates.
Through that task force work, we did lots of planning. We developed several business cases framed around the Stepping Up Four Key Measures.
For our first business case, we engaged in a long-term data integration project, which aims to help agencies support people and connect them to care. For example, when folks encounter a person with mental illness at the hospital, we want to know which other agencies have engaged with that individual before. When law enforcement respond to people with mental illness in the field, we want them to know where they can take these individuals besides jail.
Screening and reentry planning are the focus of our second business case. Before our task force work, we didn’t have the data needed to provide consistent reentry support. We had elected officials asking, “How many people are in your jail with mental illness?” and we would hear numbers ranging from 30 to 70 percent. That’s not specific enough to plan around. So, we implemented a validated correctional mental health screen. Now we know the number of people screening positive for mental illness in jail ranges from 15 to 18 percent, and we know who those people are, so our reentry teams can start the reentry planning process at booking. We also developed a live dashboard for all our reentry partners; having access to them has been critical for shrinking the length of stay for people in jail.
The third focus area is enhancing our diversion efforts. Despite being such a big area, we don’t have a lot of pre-arrest diversion options. We have a city jail, a county jail, and a safety net hospital, but that has been it in terms of available drop-off centers. However, in early November this year, the City of Atlanta and Fulton County entered into an intergovernmental agreement to establish a 24/7 Center for Diversion and Services in an unused portion of the Atlanta City Detention Center. The center will use the existing Atlanta/Fulton Policing Alternatives and Diversion Initiative’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion protocol and build on a strategy our community has been working on for 5 years, including our coordination around familiar faces. We are thrilled to see this center come to life.
Over the years, you’ve served in different capacities to help meet the needs of people in crisis, experiencing domestic abuse, or experiencing mental and substance use disorders. What drives you personally to do this work?
I think it’s simple, as I am very passionate about public service. I feel like I was born for this work. I started in the nonprofit sector for probably 5 or 6 years, doing HIV work, and then I worked in shelters, and I’ve worked with the military. When I ended up in the courts, I realized how many people in that system needed help with mental and substance use disorders and that the court system is not where those people should end up. That’s what inspired me. I’ve been very lucky to run programs that serve people directly, and now I do more policy work, and in either arena I think we just have to keep pushing the needle however we can. I am a reformer at heart, but I also know the pragmatic approach is what works. I believe in public service—this is what I do, and I do it for the people. The people are what keep me moving.
There are many obstacles to connecting individuals to services at reentry, such as treatment engagement or medication management. What are three things we can do to enhance release planning before someone’s release?
I think the first thing would be focusing on communication and ensuring you know who’s doing what among the stakeholders. And when I say stakeholders, I’m including the legal teams: who’s the public defender, who’s the prosecuting attorney, and are they connected to the social workers who are trying to find housing and other services. Having community-based providers willing to do warm handoffs or just intensive support is key. We recently started using Slack, which has been such a practical and helpful tool to improve coordination.
The second is just getting people connected to benefits. We are excited that Georgia’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council just received a Social Security Administration grant for the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities to hire Medicaid eligibility specialists to respond to Fulton County Jail.
The third is establishing connections in the community. It is important to get people connected to mental and substance use disorder treatment, housing, or whatever is needed. Just helping people stay grounded in their community is critical for long-term success.
We’re all continuously learning to better partner with and serve people experiencing mental or substance use disorders involved in the justice system. Can you name three writers, researchers, advocates, or educators that have most impacted your understanding of the justice system, mental and substance use disorders, or other issues related to this work?
What most inspire me are the human beings I’ve had the opportunity to work with. I admire writers and people in academia, and they are important. However, sometimes the people who don’t get highlighted enough are your everyday individuals who do this work. I can tell you, as an example, that one person that inspired me was a prosecutor that I worked with, in a different state. As you know, prosecutors have a lot of power, and she put her power to good use. She would frequently call me up to strategize creative diversion opportunities for people. It didn’t always work out, but I’m forever grateful to have learned from her that change is possible and that it’s our job to try. For example, we closed a juvenile detention center by tapping into a state statute that allowed law enforcement to write citations instead of police reports. That’s how you make change happen, and that’s what inspires me.
I follow a lot of abolitionists because I think it’s important to be aware of the voices that don’t see the legal system as something that can be reformed. It has helped my awareness. I try to keep in mind that if communities are invested in and supported properly, we won’t need such a big legal system, and that is what I’m striving toward.
For the third, I have always been inspired by those in the recovery and formerly incarcerated communities. I can name many names, but in general, when you do this type of work, it is important to keep this perspective. In all our work, the people who have been impacted should be the center of everything.
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