On September 7, health, business, and law enforcement professionals testified before the House C.A.R.E.S. (Community, Access, Resources, Education, and Safety) Task Force at the Capitol. Their testimony emphasized the need to reduce the involvement of people with mental health issues in the criminal justice system.

The Task Force seeks to develop legislation to reform mental health services across Michigan. Task Force co-chair Rep. Klint Kesto (R – District 39) opened the session by emphasizing that mental health is an “issue that affects all of us.” Rep. Kesto said:

We are looking for cutting edge, innovative solutions that are smart on crime and soft on taxpayers.

Michael Patton, Chief of Police in West Bloomfield, discussed the importance of crisis intervention training for law enforcement professionals. Chief Patton said law enforcement officers, although often is the first to respond, are not always what someone needs during a mental health crisis.

Dr. Laura Hirshbein, M.D., Ph.D., a clinical professor with the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Michigan, told the story of a young woman who cycled in and out of the mental health system and ultimately ended up in the criminal justice system. Dr. Hirsbein urged Task Force members to establish state-level infrastructure to create a continuum of care model.

Dennis Bott, chief executive officer of Macomb-Oakland Regional Center (MORC) said systems in Michigan operate separately resulting in miscommunication. MORC is a human services organization that coordinates long-term supports for people with physical and developmental disabilities in the southeast region of the state. He suggested an integrated health care model provides a better level of care for vulnerable residents.

Robert Lathers, chief executive officer of Right Door for Hope, a behavioral healthcare provider, shared a personal story of his father’s struggle with mental illness that eventually went untreated during a period of incarceration. Right Door for Hope offers a wide range of community-based, specialty behavioral health services. He described the service delivery model for Right Door for Hope, which strives to provide immediate same day services and achieves this 70 percent of the time.

In reference to the current mental health system, Lathers said, “We can do better.” He outlined a series of recommendations including using the Intercept Model, an approach that meets clients where they are at, establishes an integrated behavioral health and substance abuse service delivery system, and diverts people with mental illness out of the criminal justice system.

Peter Baroni, national liaison for law enforcement for the Alliance for Safety and Justice (ASJ), a national crime survivor organization that advances a balanced approach to justice, offered recommendations to improve public safety in Michigan. He spoke of the importance of programming, such as life and vocational skills, for incarcerated people. Baroni further said it important to limit the number of incarcerated people with mental health issues and to ensure appropriate services are offered in the community.

Todd Culver, chief executive officer of MARO, said employment is important for an indivdual’s success in the community. MARO advocates for legislation and policies that increase vocational opportunities for persons with disabilities and other barriers to employment. Culver said:

Employment plays an important role in the independence, self esteem, and dignity for those individuals with mental health issues.

He recommended maximizing the resources allocated to direct services and ensuring a full array of services are consistently available across all counties in Michigan.

Personal success stories and additional recommendations were presented by audience members prior to concluding the meeting.