Mental health task force discusses court diversion project, crisis intervention training for law enforcement

Healthy Support

A legislative task force continued work this month on a plan to keep more people with mental illnesses out of the criminal justice system in Wyoming.

Wyoming Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander, co-chairs the Mental Health and Vulnerable Adult Task Force, which discussed the judicial system diversion plan during a meeting last week.

“We’re working … to divert people who find themselves in legal affairs (who) also have mental illness,” Larsen said at the beginning of the discussion. “How do we divert them away from the judicial system and get them the help that they need?”

‘A moral issue’

The judicial diversion plan for those struggling with mental illness should help “unclog the courts” while also easing the demand for competency evaluations at the Wyoming State Hospital and reducing jail populations, state court administrator Elisa Butler explained.

But Larsen reiterated that the “ultimate goal” of the project is to “get (people) the help they need … rather than punishing people through the court system.”

“The No. 1 motive is, how do we help people?” he said. “The additional benefits are these reductions in courts (and) jails.”

Wyoming Department of Health director Stefan Johansson agreed that a “moral issue” serves as “the bedrock” of the judicial diversion plan.

“Clogged-up courts, clogged-up jails, the clogged-up state hospital – (those) are indications of a broader issue that we’re not providing care or services to people in the best way that we could in some of these circumstances,” Johansson said, expressing optimism that, through the court diversion project, the state “will be able to implement something that will help (people whose) primary need is not in the judicial system – it’s in mental health and social services.”

Mandatory training?

The proposal the task force focused on this month featured diversion opportunities for people who have already been arrested, but the conversation also touched on the potential for pre-booking diversions by law enforcement officials trained in crisis intervention.

A survey of law enforcement agencies in Wyoming revealed that some already participate in crisis intervention training, Larsen said, but it’s “spotty around the state” – even though federal grant money is now available to pay for the 40-hour course.

“Those funds are still available for our law enforcement people to provide this training, but (it’s) not being taken advantage of to the level we thought it would,” Larsen said. “Do we need to make that mandatory? … I think that’s a question that this committee really probably ought to answer.”

Wyoming Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, asked that representatives from the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police be invited to the next task force meeting to “have that discussion about what their capabilities are (and) what they need.”

The next task force meeting is scheduled to take place July 18-19 in Lander.

Redesign

During this month’s meeting, the task force also talked about the additional resources that will be needed to support people with mental illnesses who are kept out of the criminal justice system as part of the judicial diversion plan – including crisis stabilization, residential treatment, case management, housing and employment assistance, and more.

Johansson said some of those additional resources should be forthcoming as part of the behavioral health redesign the state is implementing this year.

“We are slowly building capacity,” Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Centers executive director Andi Summerville said. “We’re excited to help and be part of the process.”

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