The State of Wyoming is working on a plan to keep low-level offenders with mental illness and substance use disorders out of the criminal justice system.
“These people are in our jails they’re not getting the treatment they need,” state court administrator Elisa Butler told the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee this week. “That’s expensive and it’s ineffective.”
Currently, Butler explained, when people suffering from mental illnesses or substance use disorders are arrested for nonviolent misdemeanor crimes, they have to complete a competency evaluation before their case can proceed.
But the average wait time for an outpatient competency evaluation is 44 days, Butler said.
For an inpatient evaluation, it’s 157 days.
During that waiting period, many defendants are held in jail, Butler said – meaning that, “by the time (they) have their competency evaluations done … they’ve already served the maximum sentence” for the low-level crime they were initially arrested for.
At that point, she said, “we just release them for time served.”
“We’re not helping them,” Butler said. “They’re not getting any treatment aside from what they need in the jail, and then we’re releasing them without services. So many, many times … these people cycle back through the criminal justice system – usually, again, on low-level crimes.”
‘An astounding waste’
The situation “creates a number of problems,” Butler said, including crowding in jails, backlogs at the Wyoming State Hospital – which conducts most of the competency evaluations – and “excessive jail time for people (with) very low-level crimes.”
Plus, she said, local jails “are having to treat and hold people who really need treatment from providers” – and “there are times when these folks are difficult to manage.”
Wyoming Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, called the situation “crazy.”
“My head is exploding,” he said. “That’s just like an astounding waste of all these resources. … We spend a lot of money (to) lock these people up.”
Wyoming Rep. Ember Oakley, R-Riverton, agreed that jails are not “the appropriate place” to house people awaiting competency evaluations.
“The criminal justice system, in my estimation, is used too often when there’s somebody who’s a danger to themselves or a danger to the community,” she said. “We’ve got to figure (this) out.”
The state’s new “diversion model” aims to direct those low-level offenders to treatment “before they even enter the criminal justice system,” Butler said.
She shared a graphic with the committee showing “all of the places along the line … where diversion could happen,” beginning with law enforcement officers who “receive specialized training to deal with people with mental health and substance abuse issues.”
“When they encounter those folks on the street who are (committing) a low-level crime … they have the option of either charging them with a crime, or taking them directly to a provider for services,” Butler explained.
If an individual is charged with a crime and taken into custody, Butler said they have a second opportunity for diversion before they are convicted.
“(That’s) really what we’re looking at here,” she told the committee. “(If) they have mental health or substance abuse issues … their case could be held in abeyance until those services are provided and they either graduate or get better, and then potentially that case could be dismissed.”
The process would not require a competency evaluation, Wyoming Supreme Court Chief Justice Kate Fox noted, agreeing with Case that the wait times for those evaluations are “kind of mind blowing.”
Instead, she said, defendants would undergo “a fairly rudimentary jail mental health screening” to determine whether they fall into any of the “major mental health categories … with possibly co-occurring substance abuse.”
“If they meet these eligibility criteria, then they would be diverted, and there would never be a competency evaluation,” Fox said.
The diversion plan will require an increase in the amount of community mental health and substance abuse service providers available in Wyoming, but Butler said that issue should be addressed as part of the state’s behavioral health redesign, which will be implemented next summer.
“That is going to be really important for this diversion,” she said. “We (need) a place to take them in the community where they can get those kinds of treatment services.”
Butler also expressed hope that Wyoming would be able to address “social determinants of health,” like housing and employment, for citizens suffering from mental illness and substance use disorders.
“The more we help with those … the more successul (people) will be in treatment and recovery,” she said.
Wyoming plans to launch a pilot version of the diversion program in Gillette in order to determine whether the system “is effective” before it expands to other parts of the state, Butler said, and there is not currently a “timeframe (for) when we would expect to ramp this up.”
The judicial branch will notify the Judiciary Committee if statutory changes or additional funding will be needed in order to implement the program.
The committee’s next meeting is scheduled to take place Sept. 18-19 in Casper.