Program focuses on mental health, jail diversion

Long-term goal includes creating a local specialty court

Through the diversion program, local law enforcement partners with Community Mental Health to help direct people toward mental health resources instead of just being incarcerated.

Through the diversion program, local law enforcement partners with Community Mental Health to help direct people toward mental health resources instead of just being incarcerated.

Star photo/Shanna Avery

LAKE COUNTY — West Michigan Community Mental Health has been teaming up with law enforcement in Lake, Mason and Oceana counties to provide more resources for mental and behavioral health issues, with the aim to direct people toward mental health care rather than incarceration.

CMH received a $750,000 three-year federal grant from the Department of Justice to create a jail diversion program to help keep people with mental illness out of the local jail and court system, through hiring social workers to work directly with jail inmates who need services.

The grant also helps local law enforcement to connect with CMH workers when responding to a call involving a person with mental illness, according to a WMCMH news release.

The funding also includes a crisis intervention team, increased access to mental health mobile crisis services using mobile devices and in-person contacts, and expansion of diversion services including criminogenic screenings.

"We started the diversion program late spring 2021 with a mental health liaison. We manage a lot of diversion,” said CSS Coordinator Jamie Conger. “We work collaboratively to address needs so people can get services they need and work directly with law enforcement on what to do to de-escalate a situation in jail or on-call.”

Police are trained to arrest law breakers, but are often called upon to play the role of a social worker, which is not their area of training. This approach allows for police to tap into CMH resources so the individual gets proper behavior health care opposed to just being taken to jail. 

Lake County Rich Martin feels this partnership with CMH is an important component in community law enforcement.

"We work hand-in-hand in here with Community Mental Health, knowing our business and training is not mental health,” Martin said, noting there were better resources 20 years ago, than today, but great strides are being made. “We're going to see at face value there are underlying issues. Partnership with Community Mental Health can better help find the root of a problem and help to correct it.

“A lot of what we deal with is mental health-related. Issues are acted out, because of people's situations, years of complex issues or abuse. Most criminal activities have an element of mental health, to different degrees," he added. "The whole point of this — find what the root is."

Martin noted how law-enforcement and corrections officers do deal with offenders with mental/behavioral/substance issues.

“We want to help them so they’re not doing it again," he said. "If they are able to get treatment, hopefully we can curb that.”

The grant stems from an initial planning grant awarded in 2018 which established the Jail Diversion Collaborative of Lake, Mason and Oceana counties, and identified opportunities for improving identification and response to individuals with mental illness and co-occurring substance use disorders who interact with the criminal justice system, the press release stated.

“By providing crisis intervention team training to local law enforcement, they will be better equipped to begin managing a mental health situation, and when necessary, connect quickly with Community Mental Health for more support until a solution is secured,” said Josh Snyder, LPC, chief clinical officer at West Michigan CMH. “In addition, the provision of iPads will allow remote connection and nearly immediate support, when needed.  The goal is to quickly de-escalate situations and avoid unnecessary jail admissions.” 

“This grant will also allow us to hire additional staff to work with inmates inside the three county jails to ensure they have a good plan for housing, job opportunities and mental health resources for when they are released," he added. "People with mental health concerns involved in the legal system will be able to get the right help at the right time to improve their lives, reduce legal recidivism, and better the communities in which we all live.”

One of the long-term goals for the diversion program is to create a local specialty court, which would divert select defendants with mental illness into judicially supervised, community-based well-coordinated treatment.