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Officials: State must invest in treatment options

Community services, rather than prisons, can address issues, experts say by Jeff Haldiman | December 9, 2018 at 6:05 a.m. | Updated December 9, 2018 at 12:01 p.m.

Missouri lacks the community resources to address the needs of people with behavioral and substance abuse issues, the state's director of Mental Health said. And as a result, they often end up in the criminal justice system.

"Only 20 percent of people on probation get their needs met if they have substance abuse issues," Director Mark Stringer told those attending a public safety forum Friday at State Technical College in Linn.

A 2017 report from the Council of State Governments warned Missouri that it should spend $189 million over the next five years - primarily by improving treatment options for people with behavioral health problems - or risk paying $485 million to build and run two new prisons.

"And no one wants that," Stringer said.

Due to the council report and others like it, Stringer said they have convinced lawmakers there is a need for community services. Last year, he said, the Legislature took a step forward by creating the Justice Reinvestment Initiative Treatment Pilot, which will be done in Buchanan, Butler and Boone counties.

The program is designed to formalize the relationship between the Department of Corrections and the Department of Mental Health and give long-term support to people after they get out of prison.

The program offers drug treatment, and other services, mainly for women in the three counties, who are on probation or parole and are at risk of going back to prison. The focus will be on individuals who are struggling on supervision for a variety of reasons, such as living in a home where drug abuse is taking place.

"Right now, some people have to plead guilty to crimes to try and get the help they need," Stringer said. "That can be prevented if we have the resources to provide them once they get out of prison."

Department of Corrections Director Anne Precythe described the $5 million investment as a blessing in light of the state's budgetary constraints. She said it is a needed first step toward treating ex-offenders in their home communities rather than in the "artificial environment" of prison.

Stringer refuted myths about treatment for substance abuse not working. When done right, he said, there are new medications that are effective when coupled with community service and are saving lives.

In Cole County, Sheriff John Wheeler said he's been seeing the need for more behavioral health space in the county jail. In 2015, the county had 113 mental commitments. This year, he said, it's well over 300.

The jail currently has one behavioral health cell. Mental health issues were not as prominent when the jail was designed 15 years ago, Wheeler said.

Adding more behavioral health cells isn't as simple as adding new traditional cells like those used currently, he said. Adding the cells, he said, would require the work to be done all at one time. It also would require a plan to sustain any additional jail operations.

"Meanwhile, we are moving forward; within the next two months, our deputies will be carrying Narcan inside their vehicles," Wheeler said. Narcan is a nasal spray that counteracts the effects of an opioid overdose.

"But again, I'm going to have to take people off the road or out of the jail to get them qualified on Narcan, and that hurts us when we're down 12 positions," Wheeler said. "It's a vicious cycle that we're in.

"You might come up with a great program, but to get people ready to go, they have to be taken away from the everyday job. That leaves us having to pay overtime to fill the time those people are out," he said.

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