Nashville-Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall, joined by Mayor David Briley and District 19 Councilman Freddie O’Connell, announced Wednesday his vision of decriminalizing mental illness will come to fruition with the opening of the first-of-its-kind, 60-bed Behavioral Care Center (BCC). At the “Lay a New Foundation” event, Hall described the center as an alternative to jail for mentally ill arrestees. The center is set to open in early 2020.
“We truly are laying a new foundation for how our city treats those with mental illness. People like to say we started to ‘deinstitutionalize’ the mentally ill in the late 1960’s. No, we didn’t. We began institutionalizing them in the criminal justice system; making jails de facto mental health institutions,” Hall said. “The BCC will allow us to divert qualifying arrestees where they belong – in treatment, not jail.”
Hall, who has worked for several years analyzing this population, discovered failing to comply with a previous court order is the number one, three, and four reasons a mentally ill person is booked into jail. Oftentimes, law enforcement is criticized for not using appropriate discretion when dealing with low-level, misdemeanor-type crimes; however, once a warrant is generated for compliance failure, there is no option but to arrest. The BCC concept is to divert those who are arrested for a qualifying misdemeanor charge, and who also suffer from a mid-to-low-level mental illness. Charges would, basically, be “suspended” and if they complete their assigned course of treatment, those charges would never make it into the system; therefore, the individual would leave the BCC with no charges added to their record and nothing “owed” to the courts – such as probation. Finally, and maybe the most important aspect, release planning will begin immediately and not one person should leave the BCC without proper follow-up care.
“To ensure success, I began meeting with the Chief of Police Steve Anderson, District Attorney General Glenn Funk, and Public Defender Dawn Deaner a couple years ago to discuss the BCC concept and work through details and discuss best practices,” Hall said. “Additionally, I have three other working groups dedicated to this subject – including a community advisory board. These meetings will continue over the next year and I will reach out to others in the criminal justice system as we move forward.”
Hall describes the police as “Uber” when it comes to this subject. “I just need them to get the person to us.” Upon entry to booking, screeners, based on pre-set requirements, will determine if diversion is the best option for each arrestee charged with a misdemeanor. Should that person qualify, they will immediately be sent to the BCC, evaluated by mental health staff, and receive a treatment plan. If they fail to comply with that plan, they will be sent back to the detention center and the “suspended” charges will be added.
“I realize this diversion program is not the solution to Nashville’s mental health crisis, but instead is a big step to decriminalizing a large portion of this population. One of the most important things we can do as law enforcement is to educate the community. The public needs to understand jails aren’t designed to be mental health hospitals and correctional staff isn’t trained to meet the many challenges mentally ill inmates present while incarcerated,” Hall said.
“I feel strongly the cost and increased liability are hidden within criminal justice budgets throughout our country. It’s much more expensive to build and operate a correctional facility than a treatment center. There is absolutely no solution to this problem locked behind a cell door.”
According to Hall, approximately 30 percent of the 37,500 arrestees booked into jail annually are mentally ill.
The BCCwill sit adjacent to the new 756-bed Downtown Detention Center and will have a separate entrance on Gay Street. The two buildings will share services such as food and laundry.
“We are looking forward to the BCC opening so we can work to decriminalize the most vulnerable of our citizens,” Hall concluded.