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Three Cities Are Trying To Keep Low-Level Offenders Out Of Jail

by Saki Knafo for Huffington Post:

Jeannine Owens was afraid that her adult son was planning to set their home on fire. So she picked up the phone and dialed 911, as she’d done many times before with heartbreaking results. She’d seen the police clap her son into handcuffs and drag him off to jail, but this time, instead of barking orders at him, the cops lowered their voices and began to talk calmly.

It turned out they had been trained in an unconventional policing strategy, one of several profiled in a new series of videos by the nonprofit company Brave New Films.

“It’s far less violent, it’s better for the patient, and certainly it’s better for our police,” says Owens in the video.

Every year, encounters between the police and people with mental illness turn violent. Even when they don’t, the end result is usually jail. But in San Antonio, where Owens lives, the cops are doing things differently.

For the last five years, the San Antonio Police Department has responded to mental health calls by dispatching officers who have received special training in how to speak with patients. The officers then bring the patients not to the police precinct or to jail, but to a treatment center. According to Leon Evans, president of the Center for Health Care Services and one of the architects of the strategy, the center has treated some 18,000 people who would have otherwise gone to jail and eventually ended up back on the street.

San Antonio is one of three cities featured in the series, “OverCriminalized,” which makes the case that other cities should follow their lead and experiment with alternatives to locking people up. In Seattle, police are offering low-level drug offenders free housing and counseling as an substitute for jail and prosecution. (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, as the program is called, was the subject of an in-depth HuffPost feature in August.) Likewise, Salt Lake City has adopted what is known as a “housing first” model for dealing with homelessness.

“Instead of asking people to change their lives before we gave them housing, we chose to give them housing along with the supportive services and then allow them to change their lives if they wanted to,” explains Gordon Walker, director of Housing and Community Development for Utah.

In recent years, support for such “alternatives to incarceration” has grown, with states around the country experimenting with their own variations on the theme. The reason is clear: The United States has more than 2 million people behind bars, a 500 percent increase over the past three decades. Addiction, mental illness and homelessness account for many of the crimes that have led to this predicament. (About a fifth of state prisoners and jail detainees have a “recent history” of mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.)

Prison and jail are expensive, and the resulting burden on taxpayers helps explain why conservatives states like Utah and Texas are at the forefront of the search for alternatives. In the film, Evans estimates that San Antonio’s strategy has saved taxpayers about $50 million. Salt Lake City now spends only $7,800 for every homeless person each year, about a third of what the city spent on arrests, courts and emergency-room care before adopting the new approach, according to the series.

As appealing as such strategies may seem, they can’t work unless police and prosecutors agree to change their practices, and that’s not always an easy thing to do. Felix Reyes, an officer in Seattle, told HuffPost he thought the city’s program was too soft on dealers. As a young man, he watched drugs rip apart his family, he said. One of his sisters was addicted to crack, another was murdered by her boyfriend, who was a cocaine dealer and addict, and the third sister died after contracting HIV from a man who was hooked on heroin. “I think drug enforcement should be black and white,” he said.

Still, for every officer like Reyes, there are others like San Antonio’s Joe Smarro. Before he was trained to deal with mental illness, he had “no clue how to handle it,” he says in the film.

“Now it’s way different,” he adds. “I have confidence when I go into someone’s home, if they are experiencing some type of mental health crisis, that I can get them to the right facility and then I may never hear from them again.”