October 04, 2018 06:19 PM
About half of the people who are incarcerated in America struggle with a mental health issue or addiction. But instead of locking them up, leaders in Hennepin and Ramsey counties are exploring alternatives.
Thursday morning, dozens of prosecutors and members of law enforcement learned from an expert about this national initiative with a goal to make changes to the criminal justice system.
Experts believe incarceration rates are at a crisis point in America.
"Your county, or city anywhere in America spends 50 to 60 percent of its budget on criminal justice related expenses," said Ronal Serpas, chairman of Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration.
Serpas has an extensive background in law enforcement. He started this initiative and expanded upon it in St. Paul on Thursday.
"Police officers should be given alternatives to arrest by the communities they work in," Serpas said.
One alternative starts with addressing someone's mental health.
"Those who suffer from mental illness no longer have to sit incarceration but can receive the medical treatment they need," said Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek.
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Progress is underway in Hennepin County with two new mental health facilities - one downtown and one at the county's workhouse site in Plymouth.
"Instead of being sent to the jail to be booked you can go to this facility," said Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman.
In Ramsey County, they're taking similar steps, including drug sentencing reform and crisis intervention and de-escalation training for officers.
"This is not about being soft on crime, this is being smart on crime," said Chief Todd Axtell, St. Paul Police Department.
For half the population who are locked up with a mental health issue, these are steps in the right direction.
"Those changes have started to reduce some of the prison bed stress," said John Choi, Ramsey County attorney.
But while everyone agrees they'll continue to go after the violent criminals, they have to work together for those in need of additional help.
"Clearly our jails should not be filled with the people we're mad at, our jails should be filled with the people we're afraid of," Serpas said.
These top officials say they have to work with the Legislature to get funding to create more resources to treat mental health. They plan to use what they learned Thursday and all meet again to discuss their progress.
Updated: October 04, 2018 06:19 PM
Created: October 04, 2018 05:28 PM
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