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Editorial: Sarpy, Douglas Counties tackle inmates' mental health needs
Sarpy, Douglas Counties

Editorial: Sarpy, Douglas Counties tackle inmates' mental health needs

SarpyJail2 (copy)

A rendering of the behavioral health unit at the new Sarpy County Jail. The unit will provide mental health treatment for inmates.

One of the most important tools for fighting crime doesn’t involve guns or any assertion of force. The tool?

Mental health supports.

A distressingly high portion of inmates at the state and local level have a diagnosed serious mental illness. One study found that 34% of inmates in the Douglas County Jail had an acute-level mental illness and 27% screened positive for post-traumatic stress disorder. In Sarpy County, about a quarter of inmates in the county jail have a diagnosed serious mental illness.

If left untreated, the mental health challenges of those Nebraskans complicate jail conditions and, worst of all, often result in a revolving door of repeat offenses and incarceration.

Sarpy County Board Chairman Don Kelly summed it up well several years ago when he stated: “The de facto mental health centers are now your jails, correctional centers and your emergency rooms in Nebraska, and that’s just not acceptable. These people that are having psychiatric crises, they need help.”

Sarpy and Douglas Counties have taken a series of notable actions in recent years to address this challenge. This month, Sarpy County broke ground on a 150,000-square-foot jail that will increase the number of beds for inmates and include a behavioral health unit that will offer counseling and rehabilitation services for dependency on alcohol and other drugs.

In addition, Sarpy is partnering with the University of Nebraska Medical Center for UNMC to provide a psychiatrist to assess and treat inmates.

The jail’s specialized supports for those with mental health challenges, Kelly says, will “provide services to those people who need them most, when they need them most.”

Sarpy County has shown a forward-looking commitment in recent years to tackling this need. Sarpy has created Nebraska’s first diversionary court for people with serious mental health challenges who are facing nonviolent felony charges. The program is voluntary and aims to stabilize participants and treat their mental health issues rather than send them to prison. The county worked with the Nebraska Supreme Court and the Legislature to establish the court.

Douglas County also has addressed these needs. Law enforcement and corrections officers receive specialized training. The county screens people for mental illnesses when they’re booked into jail. Multidisciplinary teams provide care to inmates. Reentry services help reduce the chances of reoffending.

In addition, Douglas County launched the Familiar Faces Project, to provide mental health and substance abuse supports to past offenders who voluntarily participate in the program.

The Omaha Police Department has taken several steps since 2017, when Zachary Bear Heels, an Oklahoma man with mental health challenges, died after a struggle with officers in which he was shocked a dozen times with a Taser. In follow-up actions, the department increased training significantly for officers on how to deal with mentally ill individuals. It also began placing a trained mental health therapist at Omaha police precincts to better aid officers and the public.

All these are worthy efforts. Addressing inmates’ behavioral health challenges is a sound strategy to slow the revolving door of repeat offenders and change people’s lives for the better.

If left untreated, the mental health challenges of those Nebraskans often result in a revolving door of repeat offenses and incarceration.

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