Public defenders from across the country gathered in Denver last week to talk about best practices for diverting people suffering from mental health issues away from the criminal justice system at a conference hosted by the Equitas Project.
Amy Campanelli participated in the project. Her comments are summarized below:
“I would say we’re the cutting edge in some ways,” said Campanelli, the public defender in Cook County. She pointed to initiatives like their Treatment Alternatives for Safer Communities, a program focused on mental health and substance abuse issues, which often go hand in hand. The program also works with the county’s sheriff, and together they have opened a post-release transitional housing unit for those living with mental health issues.
The Cook County jail also gives inmates on medication a three-week supply after their release to hold them over as they transition back into public life. “We have to fund clinics, we have to fund resource centers,” Campanelli said. In Cook County, they have recently opened a 24-hour mental health facility that police can bring people into, as opposed to taking them to jail.
Community members can also use the facility if they or someone they know is in need of mental health treatment. In her opinion, the country as a whole needs to move funding away from criminal justice initiatives and towards such programs, and things like increasing social workers’ presence in schools, to end the cycle of jailing the mentally ill.
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