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Professors seek to reduce incarceration rates for mentally ill prisoners

Thursday, October 29, 2015

LAWRENCE — University of Kansas researchers are part of a grant that will work to reduce the number of individuals with serious mental illnesses who are incarcerated who could be better served in other settings. The project will have a special focus on reducing the number of women and veterans in jail.

Jason Matejkowski, assistant professor, and Margaret Severson, professor of social welfare at KU, will evaluate the Assess-Identify-Divert program as part of a partnership with Douglas County and Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center of Lawrence. The project is funded by a two-year, $200,000 Justice Mental Health Collaboration Program Grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance. Matejkowksi and Severson will evaluate the program as it is implemented to see how many individuals are assessed upon entry in the county jail, how many are determined eligible for diversion, how many receive diversion and other measures.

“We’ll be consulting with our community partners to put some mechanisms in place to prevent incarceration of individuals with severe mental illnesses and then evaluating those practices to see if they are effective and how they can be improved,” Matejkowski said.

The grant will support two new caseworkers at the Bert Nash center who will be devoted to the program. A group of community stakeholders known as the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council is in the early stages of identifying and implementing measures that can be taken to reduce the number of incarcerations, including expanded assessment, mental health courts and crisis centers, among others. The measures will be designed to capitalize on local strengths and community resources.

The council will also consider what happens when individuals with mental illnesses are incarcerated, such as reducing the length of stays and making sure resources are available upon their release to help prevent returns. The KU researchers will help identify data sources to consult for designing services while assessing what information the council and local services have and what needs to be added.

Above all, the project is most interested in improving the quality of people’s lives while saving community resources by preventing unnecessary incarcerations and jail overcrowding. Individuals with mental illnesses being incarcerated is a nationwide problem, and local research has shown that in Douglas County, about 18 percent of people who enter the county jail have mental health issues of some sort, though not all would necessarily be eligible for diversion.

The researchers hope to publish their findings at the conclusion of the study to help share the methods and approaches that proved to be the most effective in reducing unnecessary incarceration. The program will also place a special emphasis on reducing the number of women and veterans with serious mental illness who end up in jail. Those populations are currently underserved.

“They are underserved but have the fastest growing percentage of incarceration,” Severson said of women in jail. “And we see the same with veterans. We want to find out ‘is there a better place for this person that will protect public safety concerns and addresses personal needs?’ It’s about getting the right person to the right place.”

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