Taxpayers win when jail population drops

New facility would benefit service users, taxpayers, and law enforcement

Save taxpayer money and put fewer Iowans in jail. True win-win scenarios are rare in politics, but Johnson County recently found one.

Local leaders are advocating for funding for what they’re calling a behavioral health access center. The facility would be a joint venture among local government and social services, offering quick access to services for people with mentally illness and substance dependency.

The access center would help address a very real problem. Right now, there is no good place to take people experiencing mental health or substance abuse crises. Hospitals and jails are expensive, and often not the best way to address the underlying problems.

Federal figures from 2015 showed more than half the people in local jails in the United States suffer from substance abuse disorders, and nearly half suffer from chronic mental health problems.

For law enforcement officers, the access center could save significant time spent finding resources for people in need. As is, officers sometimes dedicate multiple hours to one case.

“Law enforcement would be in and out the door with less than 15 minutes. We can actually take a person some place that’s intentional about getting them the care they need, and get the officer back on the street,” Johnson County Jail Alternatives Coordinator Jessica Peckover told me last week.

My loyal readers will remember I am no fan of laws, and I dedicate a lot of newsprint to complaining about enforcement thereof. But even I have to credit the county and local cities for the progress they’ve made on containing the jail population in recent years.

The average daily jail population was just 92 in 2016, down 25 percent from 2014, and the county’s jail alternatives program has diverted more than 1,600 individuals since its inception. That $2.8 million in jail expenses.

Additionally, more than 100 local police officers have undergone crisis intervention training, which aims to de-escalate tense situations, especially those involving mentally ill people.

The behavioral health access center would cost an estimated $6.5 million to start, and annual operating losses are expected to be around $400,000 annually. Johnson County government would cover the largest portion of costs, and county supervisors are asking Iowa City, Coralville and North Liberty to chip in as well.

Fiscal conservatives are often suspicious of social services spending, but the alternatives are often much costlier in the long run.

Johnson County researchers tracked four individuals using local services over five years. They estimated the total cost to serve them was more than $2 million. Worse yet, two of the subjects have died, and the other two are still homeless and still abusing substances.

Everywhere, American taxpayers pay an exorbitant price to lock their neighbors up. Local governments across the country pay $22 billion on their jails each year, according to a 2015 report from the Obama administration.

In response to figures like those, behavioral access centers are a growing trend among public health and public safety administrators across the country. Officials from Johnson County studied several other facilities before coming up with their current proposal, including Wyandotte County, Kansas, which has a similar population size.

Some behavioral health programs are in place elsewhere in Iowa, but if Johnson County’s proposed center becomes a reality, leaders say it will be the state’s most comprehensive such facility.

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“This would be the first in Iowa to have all those components in one place,” Peckover said.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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