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story.lead_photo.caption Gary Verslues, left, and Michael Couty take part in the Community Resource Coordinating Committee meeting Tuesday, May 25, 2021, at the Jefferson City Police Department Training Room. Verslues is assistant superintendent of Jefferson CIty School District while Couty is the longtime director of the Prenger Center who is retiring soon. Photo by Julie Smith / News Tribune.

Mental health concerns led discussions as Jefferson City community leaders gathered late Tuesday morning to identify gaps and opportunities within the criminal justice system.

Led by Cole County Circuit Judge Cotton Walker and Jefferson City Police Capt. Eric Wilde, the group continued discussions that began early in 2020.

On Tuesday, the leaders/stakeholders separated into teams focusing on: justice, courts and law enforcement; juveniles and education; mental health and treatment; human services and transportation; and a resource project support group, to look at the challenges identified during earlier meetings (mostly held online because of the COVID-19 pandemic).

Gaps in the system included: failures in communication and cooperation; transportation; public awareness of resources; crisis response mechanisms; continuity planning; and funding.

Identified opportunities included: interest from stakeholders; the community; access to higher education; breadth of agencies (local, city, county, state/state Capitol); and availability of resources, Walker said.

Contributors to earlier meetings, Walker said, met recently and created the short lists of gaps and opportunities.

Cole County does a good job of sharing resources, but sometimes the county misses the mark, has gaps or falls short because of the continuing need, he said.

"Gaylin Carver, the city prosecutor, was sitting next to me and two or three times she said, 'Where are we getting the money for that?' Well, that's part of the discussion," Walker said.

The project is intended to create a document that may be returned to the state Supreme Court at the end of June.

"What I really would like to come out of this is a plan for sustainability — not that we have another meeting. As I said, everybody here has plenty of meetings and is already engaged in the community," Walker said. "But, if there's a specific topic in each of these areas, or just two or three that in the coming months and years that we can either fill gaps or take advantage of opportunities, that's what I want to come out of this."

During previous meetings, group members had talked about having a resource center, he said.

It could be brick and mortar, a crisis intervention unit, or maybe even a mobile unit, Walker continued.

If that is something the group considers achievable, it should discuss it, he said.

"The Supreme Court does promise that there is some funding available from the Justice Reinvestment Initiative," Walker said.

He intends to use the report as an exhibit or appendix for an application for funding — from whatever resources are available.

Communities are re-imagining justice and partnerships across the country, Wilde said.

"This is community policing. Because it's getting more people involved in the policing aspect of the safety of our community, so you reduce the need for policing and have more resources," Wilde said.

Dealing with concerns, like juvenile violence, is complex, he said.

"You've got family issues, you've got school issues, you've got addiction issues, you've got mental health issues," Wilde said. "I started looking for models. Most of the models that I see have a community resource coordinating committee of some sort — where we can all get together and accomplish a goal."

Police officers interact with people facing serious mental illness issues daily. They need help from mental health, faith and other communities to get individuals turned around, he said.

"It's not just that the system fails, it's just that it's a recurring thing we see all the time," Wilde said. "As police officers, we see the same people and the same issues all the time."

He described an encounter with a man on Jefferson Street — a man arrested 96 times for the same thing, defecating in public.

"He continues to do it. So, there are underlying mental health issues with that individual that we can't solve as law enforcement," Wilde said. "Those are the types of things that we see."

But, the biggest issues in the community deal with juvenile violence, methamphetamine use, homelessness and mental health.

"I've been to a ton of meetings — and there are a lot of people in this community that've got great resources and a great vision to do all the same things — but, it feels like in Jeff City, sometimes they are all siloed," he said. "I'm trying to break down those silos, so we all get together in the same room and talk about the issues, the opportunities and the resources we can bring to bear to make our community better."

Angela Hirsch, executive director of the Rape and Abuse Crisis Service in Jefferson City, said in a nutshell, Cole County needs a community resource center staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Ideally, the center would fall under the wing of a nonprofit or be closely connected with dispatchers who could direct clients to resources.

"One of the questions we face on a daily basis is, 'How do we get people the help they need, when they either can't or won't ask for it, or don't know how to ask for it?'" Hirsch said.

The center would represent a place where people aren't just "Band-Aided, but they are truly assessed and identified — what is the core root of the problem? What is their need? — And then how do we make sure they have the resources and support they need to get those needs met?"

That could happen through something like Tuesday's community resources meeting, she said.

When law enforcement has someone come into their sphere, they want to know "What's next?" Walker said. "What's next when they're released?"

Richard Lee, pretrial service administrator, said a break-out session involving numerous local law enforcement agencies identified potential steps for law enforcement, when officers contact people in crisis, or when releasing them. Officers might provide a document.

The document would include resources the person can contact, a category list of resources (containing categories like housing, mental health or drug addiction), or a long document identifying all sorts of community resources.

"The problem," Lee said, "is it's ever-changing. Things come and they go. If you don't stay on top of those things, all of a sudden you may make a referral to something that is no longer viable. There, you lose that client."

Another option officers looked at was a referral team — which could assess and obtain treatment for people. It could determine a way to get people into the system, where agencies can work with them.

A potential step is to make a Cole County Sheriff's Department full-time employee available to follow up with families and help them with after-care (when the person needing treatment is released from a 96-hour commitment).

"So many times, when they come out of that commitment, they're just back on the streets. There's nothing there," Lee said. "So, working with them and working with the family to try to help them transition" is vital.

Although the groups spoke to each other separately, the outcomes were almost as if they were in similar groups, said Ted Solomon, a community health liaison, who worked with the mental health and treatment group.

All were talking about resources and knowing how to access them, he added.

The treatment group talked about issues with funding. And, it talked about knowing admittance procedures for a person to enter a program or hospital. There are steps that must be taken.

"There was some funding that is coming to fruition this year with the stabilization centers," Walker added.

The governor's budget included funding for six Crisis Intervention Centers around the state, one in Jefferson City, Solomon said.

"It's like an 'urgent care' for mental health," he said. "It's going to be operated 24-7, staffed by mental health people."

The centers are to include a nurse, he said. Compass Health would operate one in Cole County. The centers will start with four beds, although clients sent to the centers may not be there for overnight stays. They're not to be for people in crisis who require 96-hour holds, Solomon said.

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