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New program would provide services, versus jail, for mentally ill

CITY HALL – When a police officer arrests a seriously mentally ill person who’s illegally panhandling, the officer may waste her time, and the person with behavioral problems may not get the services he needs.

Soon, though, such people may receive better care through a new program designed to divert them from arrest and provide the care they need.

Funding for the five-year program in St. Louis would come from a $1,648,627 federal grant, plus a $659,775 local match. The federal government would provide $329,929 a year, and St. Louis $131,955. The program would end on Sept. 29, 2025.

On Thursday, the aldermanic Health & Human Services Committee recommended approval of a bill calling for the city to accept the grant.

Committee members spoke enthusiastically about the potential for the early diversion program.

“It avoids potential arrest using targeted outreach and behavioral health co-response and then law enforcement training,” Sixth Ward Alderwoman Christine Ingrassia said. She chairs the Health & Human Services Committee and introduced the bill accepting the funding.

Ingrassia noted that an assessment by the city’s Division of Corrections in 2016 showed that 18 percent of defendants had a serious mental illness. An additional uncounted number of defendants had less serious mental conditions. That comes at a time when the city has serious issues with high rates of incarceration, she said. 

“This is a great way to direct them in a positive place before they end up in jail or unhoused or in situations that make them incredibly vulnerable and sometimes continue in the system for a long time,” Ingrassia said. 

The ordinance says that most mentally ill people get into trouble for low-level crimes. Their families often turn away from them and they lose financial and social support. Many become homeless. Overwhelmed social service provider networks may miss them. Frequently arrested for shoplifting, aggressive panhandling and other minor crimes, the mentally ill people might experience extensive jail time.   

The Department of Health applied for the grant. It would administer the program and provide the local match.

Acting health director Dr. Fredrick Echols said the number of mentally ill people who were connected to the criminal justice system shouldn’t be minimized. 

“Instead of incarcerating them, making sure they’re connected to proper behavioral health and support services is really the ultimate goal,” Echols said. 

The Health Department will contract with Behavioral Health Response, a local nonprofit organization that provides mental health services and counselors.

“The Health Department just doesn’t have the capacity, so oftentimes what we will do is that if we’re eligible for a particular funding opportunity, we’ll partner with an agency that already has the capacity to do the work,” Echols explained.

So far, the action would involve the time before the mentally ill get into jail, Echols said. But there is discussion about how to support them once they get into jail. Also, “When they’re released, how do we help them reacclimate to society and connect them to the proper resources that they need?” he asked.

Someone who calls 911 with a behavioral health issue would be connected to Behavioral Health Response instead of the police.

“By connecting them to the appropriate service on the front end, you streamline the process and make it a more efficient process and connect people to the services that they really need,” Echols said.

Jim Merkel

southsidemerkel@gmail.com Born and raised in the St. Louis area, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of five books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. The latest is Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis with Miss Jenny the Cat. For more about Jim, visit www.jimmerkelthewriter.com.

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