Douglas County Corrections Director Michael Myers speaks during a press conference announcing Douglas County’s selection as an Innovator County by the Stepping Up Initiative on Wednesday, May 29, 2019, at the Douglas County Jail. The county was recognized for collecting data about serious mental illness among the jail’s population.
Douglas County Receives National Recognition
for Tracking Mental Illness
By Scott Stewart
The Daily Record
A national initiative to address the growing number of people incarcerated with serious mental illness is recognizing efforts by Douglas County Corrections to collect better data on the problem.
Douglas County Corrections is the 12th county nationally to earn an Innovator County status from the Stepping Up Initiative, a joint program of the National Association of Counties, American Psychiatric Association Foundation and the Council of State Governments Justice Center that aims to reduce the number of people with mental illness in jails nationally.
“We want to become a jail that not only treats mental illness but become a jail that promotes mental health throughout the facility,” said Douglas County Corrections Director Michael Myers.
Myers said the county is taking steps toward improving support of inmates with mental health, as well as addressing systematic changes to the criminal justice system by working with law enforcement officers, prosecutors, defenders and court officials, as well as community partners and other governmental agencies.
“I do not feel this is an award,” Myers said. “It is a responsibility.”
The county hopes to keep more people with mental illness out of jail in the first place and help those end up incarcerated to seek support so they don’t return.
“Our jail has become the state’s largest mental health treatment facility, and that must change,” said Douglas County Commissioner Mary Ann Borgeson. “Jail is the absolute worse place to be treated for mental health.”
Myers said the jail cares for about 215 people daily with a serious mental illness – that’s about 17% of its average population. He said severe mental illness includes schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders, bipolar disorder, major depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Myers said the severity level of mental illness is increasing among the jail’s population, making it a challenge to balance safety concerns for staff and inmates with concern for the well-being of those who are the most seriously ill.
Vicki Maca, director of criminal justice and behavioral health initiatives for Region 6 Behavioral Health, said four key metrics are now being tracked: How many people in jail have serious mental illness; How long they spend in jail; How often they connected to resources and services in the community prior to their release; and How often they are returning.
“Right now, we have some baseline data that we’re starting to look at,” Maca said. “We’re really trying to impact those four key measures in the right way.”
Maca said Douglas County is fortunate to have Myers as its corrections director because he is a licensed mental health practitioner. He took over in October 2018 after a decade as the county’s community corrections manager.
Myers said he hopes to see a reduction in how many people with serious mental illness end up in the county jail. Diversion, more options for placement and better identification of mental health crisis could help reduce bookings.
Improving programs in the jail and improving coordination with the courts are also goals for the Stepping Up Initiative efforts.
“We do a lot of manual work currently to coordinate with the court system,” Myers said. “It would behoove us all to have that (coordination) become systematic, so these things happen in every single court case.”
At the national level, Borgeson said society should treat mental illness the same as other health concerns, and there will continue to be problems until that happens.
Until then, Douglas County can improve how it helps people with mental illness, and it can share the lessons it learns with other counties looking to do the same.
Chris Rodgers, chairman of the Douglas County Board of Commissioners, said board conversations have shifted over the years from a criminal justice focus to one centered around health care.
Douglas County Commissioner Mike Boyle said the commitment transcends partisanship and has the full support of the board.
“I’m so proud of what’s going on,” Boyle said. “There is no disagreement on this issue. This is a priority. This is a question of fairness, justice and treating people with respect.”