Decriminalization of Mental Illness in Dane County

On Monday, September 27, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi announced $10 million in funding to construct the Dane County Crisis Triage Center (CTC) as part of his 2022 budget. Joe is also creating a brand-new division within the county government, the Division of Behavioral Health, to oversee these new changes. CTC will follow the creation of the Community Alternative Response Emergency Services (CARES) team. Both will work together toward the decriminalization of mental illness, aiming to work together to deter and limit the involvement of armed law enforcement and the criminal justice system for individuals who are experiencing a mental health crisis.

The CTC and CARES teams are part of a 14-part reform package that was announced by Sheila Stubbs and Analiese Eicher in June 2020. Analiese, Dane County board supervisor who helped create this reform package, describes the package as “a result of years of data-driven recommendations put into action.” Dane County Sheriff Barrett describes the reform package as rethinking the criminal justice system. He emphasized the importance of “not doing things just because that was how we had done them in the past.”

Analiese cites this rethinking of the criminal justice system as being sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement and the COVID-19 pandemic. She described the Dane County community as always caring about issues of change; however, after seeing the basic needs of their neighbors becoming threatened, many community members saw change in our community as increasingly more important. Overall, the hope for this reform package is that it will result in a healthier community where individuals struggling with mental and behavioral health issues can find healthcare instead of finding themselves involved in the criminal justice system.

CTC will be a comprehensive facility that will allow individuals to receive help by obtaining a referral from other partners, being brought in directly by law enforcement, or by walking in themselves. Sarah Henrickson, clinical team manager and first embedded crisis worker, describes this model as having “no wrong doors.” CTC will be filling a large gap in mental health care, as it will allow for a place to go other than an emergency room for an individual in crisis. Often, an individual in crisis will be aware that they are in need of immediate help, but other behavioral health interventions can take days or even weeks. On the other hand, the emergency room can seem inappropriate and intimidating. CTC will fill this gap by creating high-quality emergency care curated exclusively for mental and behavioral health emergencies. The CTC will be crucial for keeping individuals struggling with behavioral health issues out of the criminal justice system. The need for high-quality emergency mental health care is crucial for keeping individuals out of the justice system.

Sarah describes the threshold for arrest to be low while the threshold for emergency detention and treatment is high. This means it’s easier to arrest an individual in crisis than it is to get them mental and behavioral health help. There are many barriers for emergency detention, so CTC will allow for an in between. Law enforcement will be able to drop off an individual in crisis for a 23-hour visit. Here, staff will monitor and treat the individual until they have a plan for what to do next. CTC can then move the individual to a more appropriate location or refer them to other resources that they can choose to take advantage of. The overall aim of CTC is to get an individual through the window of crisis safely.

Launched in summer 2021, the CARES team aims to destigmatize mental health problems by sending crisis workers to mental health emergencies. When 911 receives a call regarding a behavioral health incident, the dispatcher can choose to send the CARES team, which consists of an embedded crisis social worker and a paramedic. According to Sarah, sending armed officers to scenes of mental health emergencies continues to stigmatize mental health, amplifying the perception that individuals struggling with mental illness are dangerous to the community. Additionally, she explains that when police officers are called to the scene of an incident, they’re immediately in emergency mode. Law enforcement is trained to deal with mental health emergencies; however, as an individual becomes more agitated, this contact with the police could turn into an arrest.

Future plans in Dane County include a community justice center. The Dane County Criminal Justice Council defines a community justice center as a space for “procedural justice and racial equity.” County officials stated that they want to see the center include a community court and services for education, peer mentoring, and restorative justice, but other services are still up in the air, such as counseling, a clinic for addiction treatment, and legal representation.

Dane County officials want to model the community justice center off of the Red Hook Justice Center and then tailor it to meet the needs of the Dane County community. The Red Hook model provides alternatives to the way we understand criminal justice; for example, one of the key programs at the Red Hook center is peacemaking sessions that involve members of the community who talk with the offender and find alternative solutions to jail time. According to Red Hook, three out of four offenders that are referred to Red Hook receive social services instead of jail time. Analiese says, “To create different results, the criminal justice system will need to do things differently.”

Bobbie Jo Disch is a NAMI Dane County intern.