Fred Hubbell encouraged by Johnson County jail diversion program

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IOWA CITY — State government has to realize the scope of the mental health challenges Iowans and Iowa communities face, Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Fred Hubbell said Tuesday after meeting with the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department and jail staff.

“The state role, to begin with, is to recognize this is an issue. It’s not going to go away. It’s getting bigger,” Hubbell said after meeting with Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek and five members of his staff, a jail diversion counselor and Story County Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald.

“The state needs to get involved with the topic of allowing mental health treatment and substance abuse treatment to happen at the same time rather than separately. That’s clearly what we’re hearing.”

That was the message from Chief Deputy Steve Dolezal and Jail Alternative counselor Emily Hurst. They told him about Johnson County’s efforts to deal with people who have co-occurring issues — mental illness and substance abuse, for example.

They talked with Hubbell about the jail diversion program that has cut daily inmate population by about half. In the program, people brought to the jail are screened “and can sometimes be diverted to other programs in the community,” Hurst said.

Dolezal initially was skeptical of the diversion program — “the hug-a-thug program,” he said.

The inmate population is heavy with people with substance abuse and mental health issues, he said, “but if we do nothing for them, we’re not better off” when they leave jail. Without help, many will get recycled back into the system, he added.

By diverting many low-level, non-violent offenders into community-based programs, Dolezal said Johnson County was able reduce its daily inmate population from a high of about 180 to around 90. In 2015, he said, the county paid other jails about $1 million to house Johnson County prisoners.

“I think we paid for new jails in Muscatine and Washington counties,” he told Hubbell.

Last year, the county paid $463,000 to house inmates in other counties.

Pulkrabek, who is president of the Iowa State Sheriffs and Deputies Association, said the organization is taking part in a discussion to create six or seven short-term regional facilities so sheriff’s departments would not have to travel more than 90 minutes to find beds for inmates who need substance abuse or mental health care.

Hubbell, one of seven Democrats running for the party’s 2018 gubernatorial nomination, is conducting similar mental health discussions around the state this week to bring more attention to the issue. He called for a more comprehensive approach to dealing with mental illness.

“We definitely have a mental health challenge across the state, and when you combine substance abuse with it, it’s even bigger,” Hubbell said. “We need to get more emphasis on community-based solutions.

“Not everyone does it the same way, but I think everyone is realizing that we’re putting too much pressure on the criminal justice system and public safety,” he said.

He’s trying to learn best practices from people and agencies around that state, Hubbell said, and “come out of this with some ideas to discuss in the campaign and, hopefully, as governor to move the state forward.”

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