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November 21, 2022

DOJ official touts innovative partnerships to tackle justice and mental health issues

Today’s climate of racial reckoning, rising violent crime rates and the pandemic have renewed necessary and urgent conversations about community police trust, equal justice and public safety, said U.S. Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta at the ABA Criminal Justice Section 15th Annual Fall Institute in Washington, D.C.

Gupta, the third highest-ranking official at the U.S. Department of Justice, addressed the conference Nov. 18. The meeting’s theme was “Criminal Justice Next: Solutions to Move Equity and Fairness Forward.”

“We cannot separate the challenges in the justice system from challenges in access to health care, jobs and education,” Gupta said. The challenges have uniquely impacted low-income communities and communities of color and those with mental health and substance abuse disorders. She said that people with mental illness are 10 times more likely to be incarcerated than they are to be hospitalized and less likely to be served by diversion and treatment programs.

Gupta called for partnerships and collaboration among public and private entities — everyone from government officials and law enforcement to courts, attorneys and service providers — to help tackle the challenges. “We at the Justice Department know we cannot have public safety without trust. Trust between police and the communities they serve and trust that our institutions will push for fairness where it’s lacking.”

She outlined innovations for equity in public safety and health and pointed to a model that is making a huge difference in Florida — the Criminal Mental Health Project (CMHP) in Miami-Dade County. The initiative, which started in 2000 by Judge Steve Leifman, is a comprehensive program that diverts nonviolent, misdemeanor defendants with mental health issues or substance abuse disorders into community-based treatment and support services. CMHP has saved Miami-Dade County $39 million annually, and the jail population has dropped nearly 40%.

“For too long our nation’s jails have been warehouses for people with behavioral health disorders,” Gupta said. Creative programs like the Miami project can save time, money and resources for communities as well as save lives, she said.

Gupta noted other innovative DOJ-supported programs that address mental health and justice. They include:

  • Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Program, which DOJ has awarded $13 million in funding to support cross-system collaboration for individuals with mental illnesses or co-occurring mental health and substance abuse disorders who come into contact with the criminal justice system.
  • Connect and Protect grants, which provides more than $15 million in funding to state, local and tribal governments to help law enforcement officers and behavioral health professionals collaborate to improve public health and safety responses and outcomes for people with mental health disorders.
  • STRIDES Program, which stands for Strategies That Result in Developing Emotional Stability, is a problem-solving court that enlists a team of legal, mental health and social services professionals who seek to reduce recidivism and improve outcomes for individuals, families and communities.

Programs and initiatives such as these show the “Justice Department’s commitment to listen to the field, to learn from our state and local partners and fund and support community-driven and community-led solutions,” Gupta said.

Community-based organizations and law enforcement working toward public safety and crime prevention is key, she said. “We can no longer place social problems at the feet of police.”