ELIZABETHTOWN, Kentucky — State and local leaders from across Kentucky gathered on Nov. 1 to discuss options for diverting individuals with mental illness, substance abuse disorders, and other behavioral health needs into treatment instead of the criminal justice system.

Hosted by the Crime and Justice Institute (CJI) and Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, the forum provided an opportunity for jurisdictions to share examples of local diversion and treatment initiatives that could be expanded or adopted throughout the state.

“A majority of individuals cycling in and out of local jails struggle with mental illness,” said John Tilley, secretary of the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet. “Law enforcement agencies need more resources and better strategies to divert nonviolent offenders into treatment, which is more effective at protecting public safety than incarceration.”

CJI’s Lisa Margulies presented on national behavioral health statistics and the outcomes of criminal justice responses for individuals with mental health or substance abuse disorders. Margulies said individuals with behavioral health needs in the criminal justice system are at risk for negative outcomes such as victimization, longer time served, and higher likelihood of parole revocation. Collaborative reentry support is critical to help individuals with behavioral health issues remain crime free after returning to the community.

Kentucky law enforcement agencies have already begun implementing innovative programs and strategies designed to intervene at initial police contact to prevent an individual from entering the criminal justice system. The Alexandria Police Department now has two staff social workers, and multiple agencies have adopted the Angel Program, a national model built on the idea that individuals with drug addiction can seek help accessing treatment at local police departments without fearing arrest for relatively minor drug crimes. A panel of law enforcement officials highlighted these programs and identified ongoing barriers, such as the need for additional officers trained in diversion strategies and funding for social workers.

In addition to diversion, the Kentucky forum focused on the growing need to address behavioral health challenges of individuals already involved in the criminal justice system. Kentucky has made significant progress in addressing behavioral health needs in recent years, but experts who spoke at the forum said there is more work to be done to strengthen community-based partnerships and adopt evidence-based solutions to address ongoing challenges. Programs in Kentucky such as the Living Room provide evidence-based methods of treatment that meet individuals where they are while promoting positive long term outcomes.

“In every corner of Kentucky, law enforcement agencies are grappling with more encounters related to mental illness and substance use disorder,” Tilley said. “This forum was a crucial first step in exploring best practices, both here and across the country. The panelists brought a wealth of knowledge and experience, and I look forward to using this conversation as a springboard to improve policy, strengthen public safety, and increase treatment and save lives.”

The event was the third in a series of forums hosted by CJI as part of an initiative of the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance designed to encourage collaborative criminal justice reform efforts across the nation. In the coming months CJI will host two additional forums.