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EDITORIAL: Tackling addiction, mental illness

City’s justice plan is good start

December 17, 2016

They are sobering statistics: 85 percent of about 2,500 inmates in Marion County’s jails have substance abuse problems and up to 40 percent are classified as mentally ill.

More than 700 prescriptions are distributed to mentally ill inmates every day—that’s right, every day—at a cost of $650,000 per year. And the county spends more than $7 million annually caring for those patients in other ways, including secure facilities meant to keep them safe.

Those are among the many findings of the Criminal Justice Reform Task Force, a group appointed by Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett that has recommended a move away from incarcerating people with substance abuse and mental health issues and toward getting those people the help they need.

It’s just one part of a plan to try to improve the city’s criminal justice system, which is battling overcrowded jails and courts.

“The intersection of mental illness, substance abuse, as well as addiction and poverty exacerbates these challenges—overburdening the criminal justice system, creating cycles of recidivism, and contributing to generational poverty,” the report says.

So Hogsett is proposing a new criminal justice complex that would include an assessment and intervention center where arrestees would be evaluated for mental health and addiction problems. Those who need help will receive detox and behavioral health treatment and be referred to social services for additional assistance.

But Hogsett wants to go further. He’s trying to stop Indianapolis residents with addiction and mental health problems from ending up in the criminal justice system to start with.

He plans to have social workers and paramedics work with police officers in mobile crisis units to respond to emergency calls. He wants to provide crisis intervention training for officers and 911 operators. And the city plans to work with the New York University School of Law to develop a data-driven mental health screening model that officers can use in the field.

These are long overdue steps that could not only (eventually) save the city and county governments money but also help thousands of individuals and their families regain control of their lives.

Addiction and untreated mental illnesses are devastating not just for the individuals who are consumed by them but also for their families, friends and coworkers. The problems cause unemployment, homelessness and broken homes. They can lead to trauma and violence.

But both problems can be treated. And that treatment must be made available to individuals and families across Indianapolis if we are to create and maintain a healthy city.

Giving the police and the criminal justice system the resources to deal with these issues is a fantastic first step. There will surely need to be additional efforts. But we commend Hogsett and the Criminal Justice Reform Task Force for getting started.•

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