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Mental health treatment a crucial component of criminal justice reform | READER COMMENTARY

Behavioral Health Leadership Institute parked their REACH van outside the Baltimore City Central Booking facility where organizers sought to offer Medicaid services for drug treatment to inmates leaving the jail. Barbara Haddock Taylor. April 6, 2019.
Behavioral Health Leadership Institute parked their REACH van outside the Baltimore City Central Booking facility where organizers sought to offer Medicaid services for drug treatment to inmates leaving the jail. Barbara Haddock Taylor. April 6, 2019. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / The Baltimore Sun)

This year has been filled with protests in response to issues of use of force, trust and accountability in policing. These conversations about race and policing are incredibly important and long overdue. But in order to truly move our entire justice system forward, we must also acknowledge the intersection between our criminal justice system and the deficit of mental and behavioral health services in our communities. Too often, we are not treating but rather incarcerating individuals with mental and behavioral needs. For Black and brown community members, these challenges are sadly compounded by preexisting racial disparities (“Could crisis intervention teams be the key to police reform?” Nov. 12).

According to the Maryland Alliance for Justice Reform, at least 39% of local jail inmates in Maryland have a mental health disorder. Nine out of 10 of those individuals also struggle with a co-occurring substance abuse disorder. For many of these individuals, the statistics show that their prison stays will likely be longer than that of the average incarcerated person, and that once they leave prison they are also more likely to return to the criminal justice system.

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Since the 1980s, the number of psychiatric beds funded by the state has decreased by 80% as part of broader deinstitutionalization efforts that accelerated throughout the 1990s. The community based treatment that was supposed to fill the void left by centralized psychiatric institutions has never sufficiently materialized. Instead, individuals with mental and behavioral illnesses are being pushed into emergency rooms or interactions with police officers who often do not have the resources to adequately address a mental health crisis.

This year, as co-chair of the subcommittee on public safety and criminal justice of the Commission on Mental and Behavioral Health, I am honored to have the opportunity to address this issue. With technical assistance from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s GAINS Center, we are holding the Maryland State Summit on Mental and Behavioral Health in the Justice System this Tuesday and Wednesday, Nov. 17 and 18.

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Summit participants will identify gaps and issue recommendations for how the state can proactively and systematically address the mental and behavioral health needs of Marylanders before, during and after their engagement with the justice system.

Systemic problems require systematic solutions and the path toward a more just and equitable society is one where we take care of those who need our help the most. By engaging with experts, encouraging collaboration and sharing best practices across jurisdictions, this summit will help us build a future where we don’t simply incarcerate those in crisis, but where individuals struggling with mental and behavioral illness can get the treatment and care they deserve.

Katie Fry Hester, Ellicott City

The writer, a Democrat, represents District 9, Carroll and Howard counties, in the Maryland Senate.

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