Efforts to reduce incarceration of those with mental illnesses earn Johnson County distinction as national leader

The coordinated efforts of local government and law enforcement agencies have put Johnson County at the forefront of a national effort to keep people with mental illnesses out of jail when possible.

On Wednesday, county leaders announced Johnson County had been selected as one of just seven Innovator Counties through Stepping Up: A National Initiative to Reduce the Number of People with Mental Illnesses in Jails.

Johnson County was chosen in part because it is already employing a set of protocols and tools to screen for and treat mental illness advocated by the national initiative. They are:

  • establishing a shared definition of serious mental illness for local criminal justice and behavioral health systems’ Stepping Up efforts;
  • ensuring everyone booked into jail is screened for mental illness and those who screen positive are referred to a follow-up clinical assessment; and
  • regularly reporting on this population.

Johnson County was an early participant in the program, piloting a variety of tactics aimed at diverting the mentally ill from jail and instead directing them to treatment programs.

Among those initiatives is the mental health co-responder program launched in coordination with municipal police departments. That program provides a trained mental health professional to assist police officers on calls where mental health issues are suspected of being a contributing factor.

The county has also instituted a veterans treatment court program in early 2016. That program works to identify veterans of the armed services who are in the criminal justice system, and to provide them with treatment and supervision in lieu of incarceration.

As an Innovator County, Johnson County will serve as a model for other areas across the country looking to reduce the number of mentally ill individuals in county jails.

“Every day, people with mental illness are booked into jails across the country,” Johnson County Mental Health Center Director Tim DeWeese said in a statement. “The number of people who have mental illnesses in jail is three to six times higher than that of the general public. We’re grateful to the county’s leadership for making Stepping Up a priority, allowing us to help those who experience mental illness avoid incarceration and to receive the help they deserve.”

Stepping Up, which was launched in 2015, is a collaboration of The Council of State Governments Justice Center, the American Psychiatric Association Foundation and the National Association of Counties.

Douglas County, Kan., was also among the group of seven Innovator Counties from across the country.