Recidivism is a $100 word that means relapse into crime. It’s most commonly used to refer to someone who has been in jail, is released, and then commits another crime and finds himself or herself back in jail. In other words, it’s “the tendency of a convicted criminal to re-offend.” But are all “criminals” really criminal, or do they just need some services to support them and help them manage their lives better?
Often individuals who’ve been arrested for a crime are suffering from circumstances that put them sideways with the law. Perhaps they have a mental health issue — bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, substance use disorders, or they’ve stopped taking their meds; sometimes they’re just down on their luck, out of a job, homeless, and without the resources to be a healthy, functioning member of the community.
It will probably be no surprise to those of you who know the caring and committed individuals in our justice system or working in our various social services that some of these people have “stepped up” to find some different solutions.
Pat Matlock (jail administrator and chief criminal deputy), Katie Lindstrom (deputy director, Pacific County Health Department), Rosanne McPhail (Justice and Mental Health Collaborative Program coordinator), Tessa Clements (Therapeutic Courts coordinator) and Judd Comer, (Criminal Justice Program specialist and jail liaison) have been the primary collaborators implementing a national initiative to combat recidivism called “Stepping Up.”
At Adelaide’s Coffee Shop and Bookstore last week over coffee, McPhail said, “We know that we have a higher incidence of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) than average in Pacific County and a high poverty rate. Often this can translate down the road to more people caught in the justice system. Stepping Up is a program meant to help people get back on their feet, out of jail, and into the community.”
“But, first, I should say this is not about being ‘soft on crime.’ It’s about decriminalizing mental illness. Stepping Up is all about making stronger, healthier communities.”
ACE is an acronym for a variety of problems that can hit our Pacific County children: these include sexual abuse, domestic violence, poverty, food insecurity, drug use, and learning problems. Our median household income is well below the average. So for a small community we have more than our share of social concerns. Fortunately, we have more than our share of community boosters; and the members of the Stepping Up project team are certainly on that list.
One of the major components of the Stepping Up program is called “Intercept.” It’s a means of interceding with individuals at different points in their lives, ideally before they get arrested or sent to jail. There are different flex-points where folks on some kind of downward or accelerated trajectory into trouble could be “intercepted” — diverted from that path and helped. But how do we identify these people?
Sometimes it’s just a neighbor or other community member who recognizes that an individual needs some extra assistance. Or it could be our law enforcement officials out in the community on the streets who have the opportunity to identify people needing specialized resources. (If you’ve read the Chinook Observer dispatch reports you might understand that often these provide early warning flags to identify folks in trouble.) If someone is arrested and in the initial booking process, or even already in the court system, a judge can sometimes offer service alternatives to jail if appropriate. But how does a community sort out intentional criminals from folks that could benefit from other services and just need a positive boost?
One of the first grants that our Stepping Up team secured financed an intake survey that identifies people for whom jail time is not the best solution. Once an individual is identified with a mental health or other problem, one of our county’s network of service providers can be brought in to help. Often they need more than one service — perhaps behavioral counseling, help with housing, job training, or medical assistance.
As Matlock says, “With this program in place, we’ve started getting baseline data. From June or July last year until around December, we arrested 550 people who were then screened with our Stepping Up survey tool. 27 percent of those folks had some kind of mental health problem. We were able to help them with other services.”
The Stepping Up screening saves the county money and helps more effectively get individuals back on their feet and keep them out of the criminal justice system. Willapa Behavioral Health is a central partner for providing drug and crisis counseling. There is also crisis intervention training for all police officers — one that teaches deescalation techniques and helps police determine how to deal with a person who is having a mental health crisis.
Matlock continues, “Initially when our team got involved it was in the planning phase of Stepping Up. I was unsure how it would all play out. We always have to consider the impact on our county budget and our staffing. There were some unknown questions as we started the journey.”
It’s clear now that the initial funding grants for Stepping Up are providing real benefits to the county. Our jail has 59 beds, but, because of demographic shifts, the facility is often at capacity. “For some reason, we are seeing more females incarcerated now,” says Matlock, “and the jail was not configured for that. I’m not sure why but in past years we’d have four to five females on a daily basis, now we have anywhere from eight to 15.”
As members of the Stepping Up team indicate, this program means that individuals who have other than violent crime problems can be helped in more appropriate ways. As jail liaison Comer says, “When individuals come in our door, for whatever crime or reason, we want to do our best to get them through the service process. We want to help them manage themselves in the community. We don’t want people in crisis on a daily basis. Let’s get them some help that can change their situations. Just last week we [Stepping Up] intervened and got two people directly into the hospital for medical assessment. That wouldn’t have necessarily happened in the past.” Comer hopes that future Stepping Up funding can provide for a mental health profession to come into the jail more days a week.
Not only is Stepping Up benefiting our community, our team was recognized at the national Washington D.C. conference on Stepping Up in April 2016. They were asked to present — only nine teams were chosen nationally — to talk about the “Best Practices” they’ve implemented in Pacific County. As one of only two rural Best Practice teams, counties in other states were asking advice of the Pacific County team because they’ve managed to do more in a rural area with fewer resources.
As McPhail says, “We heard a lot of ‘Wow, you guys are doing great things!’ We had a team from Fulton County in Georgia with some of the same problems our county has, but they are just much bigger. What we’re discovering is that it’s all about communication. In many cases, the services are there — we just need to coordinate our efforts.”
What’s the bottom line? Stepping Up has produced many benefits for the county: fewer people booked into our jail who have mental illness; more people connected to needed services and resources; and a reduced recidivism rate.
“Everybody wants a safer community” says McPhail. “We’re saving money and helping people!”