Editorial: Arrest isn’t the answer to mental health and drug problems


A year ago we challenged community leaders who attended the third annual Palm Beach County Drug Abuse Summit to craft an action plan dedicated to decriminalizing mental illness and related substance abuse disorders.

At the fourth annual summit, held at Max Planck Florida on Tuesday, the news was mostly good: A plan is, in fact, coming together, thanks in part to a grant that the county’s Criminal Justice Commission received from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, as part of its Safety and Justice Challenge.

As we noted a year ago, the Palm Beach County Jail remains the largest provider of mental health care locally. It’s also the costly landing pad for too many people who’ve fallen down the dark hole of substance abuse.

Approximately 85 percent of people in the county jail are there because of substance abuse-related charges — using, selling, or stealing to buy drugs, or driving while intoxicated, noted Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw.

What’s causing so many people to turn to drugs in the first place? For many, that downward trajectory begins with an untreated mental health problem and a desperate effort to self-medicate. One in four jail detainees has a serious mental illness, Bradshaw said at the conference.

“That’s not where they belong,” Bradshaw said. “And we certainly don’t have the ability to do drug treatment for a substantial period of time. We can stabilize them, but without the resources in the community to provide drug treatment, it’s not going to work. The jail is not the answer.”

Agreed. It’s intolerable that jail is our substitute for true community mental health and treatment access. Once someone has a criminal record, access to jobs and housing becomes exponentially more difficult, and the likelihood that they’ll be a burden on society for life rises dramatically.

So where does change begin? The MacArthur grant challenged organizations that are normally siloed to learn who is in their county jails, and why, and then collaborate on targeted solutions.

The Criminal Justice Commission learned that nearly seven in 10 people in the jail were there on a pre-trial basis – they hadn’t been convicted of anything – but in many cases, were too poor or ill to post bond. Being held in jail usually leads to job loss, which often leads to more crises, like home loss and more criminality.

It makes sense to reroute people in crisis away from arrest and toward community-based services that can help them get the medication, therapy or recovery help they need, without forcing them to amass a criminal record.

When someone is in the throes of a mental health or drug crisis people around them typically call 911 for help. The better choice is to call 211, not 911. But most people call the police.

Officers typically have limited options: arrest them, if they’re a danger to themselves; Baker Act them,which means sending them to a mental health crisis unit for 48 hours; or if threatened, shoot them.

What if there were another way? Intercept the person in crisis and deliver him or her to a way station where a trained social worker could evaluate the right path. Is the disorderly conduct, loitering, vagrancy, nuisance or panhandling behavior actually the result of a mental health or addiction issue? Would it be better and more affordable to treat them long-term somewhere like the Jerome Golden Center for Behavioral Health, or the South County Mental Health Center?

The commission is now short-listed for a chance to win a larger MacArthur grant of $2 million a year. It’s preparing a pitch that would include creating “intercept” hubs where officers could deliver impaired non-violent people.

At first it would need money to help pay for the community mental health and rehabilitation services. But if the county saves money by shrinking its jail population, it should have funds available to keep running this program.

Clearly, this community cannot arrest its way out of its mental health and substance abuse problems. This idea sounds like a winner.


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