On July 31, veteran service, health, and law enforcement professionals testified before the C.A.R.E.S. Task Force at the Livingston County EMS building in Howell. The presenters outlined a variety of recommendations including specialized services, improved cross-system communication, and increased access to services. Testimony emphasized the need to reduce the involvement of people with mental health issues in the criminal justice system.

Livingston County Sheriff Mike Murphy stated that approximately 50 percent of the jail population is on psychotropic drugs. It costs $85 per day to confine a person to the Livingston County jail. Noting the jail is not a mental health facility, he said:

I would rather see someone use those dollars to keep people out of my facility.

One solution in Livingston County is the Engagement Center, a twenty-four-hour facility that provides assessments of individuals. Murphy explained the Center offers his deputies a fourth option to serve residents beyond doing nothing, sending them to the hospital, or taking them to jail.

Connie Conklin, executive director of the Livingston County Community Mental Health Authority, described the Engagement Center as a place “where anybody” can get services. The Center has a jail diversion grant and also provides discharge planning for returning citizens.

Conklin called for statewide accountability to provide base-level mental health services. She further urged for the flexibility to provide specialized services for areas such as the Upper Peninsula and Detroit that have specific needs.

Conklin concluded her remarks by saying it is not all about funding and numbers but that it is about “health and impact.”

Judge Carol Sue Reader, of the 53rd District Court, shared a deeply personal experience indicating her bipolar son has entered the justice system on multiple occasions. She uses this experience to guide her work and said:

Mental illness is a disease. It is nothing to be afraid of. The people who are affected need our help, not judgment.

Ten years ago, Judge Reader was involved in the development of the first mental health court and now there are approximately 25 across the state. Mental health courts allow for specialized treatment of individuals with mental health issues. Judge Reader sees the mental health court as an opportunity to help people access necessary treatment services.

Jamie Wright, veteran justice outreach coordinator at the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System, outlined critical services for veterans that experience a difficult transition into civilian life. His services build a bridge between the veteran and the community. This allows for connecting veterans to primary care, housing, mental health, and substance use services. Wright indicated community partnerships at the federal, state, and local level are important to identify justice-involved veterans and engage them in available services.

Dr. Stephen Pinals, MD, a physician with the Department of Psychiatry at the St. Joseph Mercy Hospital, echoed the need for improved access to services. He described patients leaving facilities with only an appointment card and a prescription. Dr. Pinals said access treatment is often a delayed process and said the solution is about “access and levels of care with continuity.”

Dave Stanifer, assistant mental health director at the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC), acknowledged that 9,000 people currently incarcerated in Michigan suffer from mental illness, or 23 percent of the prisoner population. Of the total 41,000 people incarcerated at the MDOC, 92 percent will eventually return to their communities.

Stanifer said MDOC wants to “open its doors and be more of a collaborative partner.” He said the department experiences staff shortages and struggles to attract talented professionals.

Judge Michael Hatty, of the 44th Circuit Court, expressed his support of drug courts and said that his adult drug court did not have any deaths last year. Treatment to address the individual’s core problems is critical. In support of prevention and treatment services, Judge Hatty said, “kicking the can down the road does not work.”

Dr. I. David Yang, chief medical officer of the Brighton Center for Recovery, presented a holistic approach to treatment. The Brighton Center for Recovery offers longitudinal care. Research shows it takes a minimum of six years to stabilize an individual suffering from substance abuse addiction. He urged the task force members to create improved access for treatment, invest in children and adolescent treatment services, and treatment for pain without opioids.

Francine Zysk, administrator for the 53rd District Court, described Project Opiate, a program designed to have individuals in jail educate students about opiate addiction. With 34 overdose deaths in Livingston County in 2016, she said, “we need to remove the stigma around drug use” so people are willing to seek treatment.