Bipartisan bills boost crisis response and jail diversion programs for people with mental illness

By: - September 20, 2021 11:29 am

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State Sens. Rick Outman (R-Six Lakes) and Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) introduced two bills last week to establish grants funding community crisis and jail intervention programs in localities to address pitfalls in mental health response programs in Michigan. 

In 1974, the Community Mental Health code was established in Michigan that created laws and programs to help Michiganders suffering from mental illness. The bills introduced by Outman and Chang hope to amend the code and ensure more services related to crisis response and jail diversion are supported by the state. 

In an interview with the Advance, Chang said the bills would secure funds for programs that would ensure those suffering from mental illness receive the help they need, instead of facing criminal punishment. Chang said the bills will not fix everything, but she called them a step in the right direction. 

Sen. Stephanie Chang, Oct. 31, 2019 | C.J. Moore

“Mental health is a big issue, and there’s so much that we need to do and this is definitely not going to solve everything,” Chang said. “But what it will help address is crisis response. … We really need to make sure that when people have a mental health crisis, that the people who are responding are the ones who are going to be able to actually get that person help.” 

Senate Bill 637, introduced by Chang, would provide grants to establish and expand community crisis response programs across the state to empower community crisis responder clinicians or responder peers to de-escalate, stabilize or reduce harm in emergency situations involving a mentally ill person. The grant would also require the establishment of mental health diversion councils. 

According to the Washington Post’s Fatal Force report, about 1,491 people with mental illness have been fatally shot and killed by police since 2015. That equates to about 23% of people fatally shot by police in that time period. 

Chang’s legislation comes as Detroit also seeks to expand its current Behavioral Health Co-Response Pilot Program, which has been successfully implemented in four police precincts.

Similar crisis response programs have been largely successful in other states and cities across the nation. 

Denver’s STAR program, which provides an individualized crisis response for people who are homeless or suffering from mental illness, showed promising results in its pilot program. The program responded to 748 emergency calls that did not require police action or arrests. An estimated 61% of the people the program contacted were experiencing mental illness. 

In Orlando, the Community Response Team has helped 549 people since March and made no arrests. Only 129 people were involuntarily committed to a mental health institution after presenting an ability to harm themselves or others. 

Sheryl Kubiak, dean of Wayne State University’s School of Social Work and founding director of the Center for Behavioral Health and Justice told the Advance the grants supporting community crisis programs will “address a gap in crisis response” that currently exists between counties throughout the state. 

“These bills give us the opportunity to expand service delivery that increases people’s functionality, and decreases their involvement in the criminal legal system,” Kubiak said. “Crisis Response work is really important so that people aren’t necessarily criminalized for their mental health issues. Often law enforcement officers, particularly officers that have not been trained in recognizing mental health, believe that it’s bad behavior, because they do not recognize the signs and symptoms of mental health issues.”

Rick Outman

Senate Bill 638, sponsored by Outman, would establish grants for local communities to create jail diversion programs allowing for those with mental illness who run into trouble with the law to be sent to an inpatient mental health facility, instead of jail.

Nationwide, somewhere between 28% to 52% of people suffering from mental illness have been arrested at least once. Inmates suffering from mental illness spend a disproportionate amount of time in jail compared to those convicted of the same crimes.  

Mental illness impacts a quarter of Michigan’s prisoners, and their care comes with a hefty price tag. It was estimated in 2016 that $95,000 a year was spent on a mentally ill prisoner, compared to only about $6,000 spent on a non-incarcerated mentally ill person. For those incarcerated without mental illness, only $35,000 was spent per prisoner per year. 

Marianne Huff, president and CEO of the Mental Health Association in Michigan, said she believes funding for jail diversion programs is “a step in the right direction.”

“What [this law] does is it really broadens and opens up opportunities for true jail diversion in our state,” Huff said. “Jail diversion requires cooperation across a lot of different systems. It requires cooperation with the criminal justice system, including law enforcement, the courts [and] judges. It requires mental health and behavioral health professionals, systems like community mental health, to collaborate. … City, county, local governments, they all need to cooperate together.”

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) has already introduced a bill, SB 597, aiming to privatize Michigan’s mental health system. The Michigan Senate Government Operations Committee, which he chairs, is set to take it up on Tuesday. 

Shirkey’s plan would do away with the state’s 10 managed Pre-Paid Inpatient Health Plans and would enable commercial health insurance companies to take over responsibilities from the state regarding mental health services. 

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, Sept. 24, 2019 | Nick Manes

When asked about Shirkey’s bills aiming to privatize the mental health system in Michigan, Chang said the bills she and Outman are sponsoring focus on supporting local mental health initiatives versus reforming the entire system. 

“This bill is focused on crisis response, and focused on supporting local models, and supporting the work that is going on,” Chang said. “We’re not necessarily in these bills, tackling anything about integration, or Medicaid. So I think this is a very, very different approach. And we’ll see how things go with those other bills.”

However, no currently proposed legislation addresses another issue regarding mental health in the state — the lack of psychiatric beds. According to a study by the Treatment Advocacy Center in 2016, Michigan only had 7.3 beds per 100,000 people, lagging behind the national average of 11.7 beds per 100,000 people. 

From 1965 to 2019, the amount of funding for psychiatric hospitals in the state fell from 9% to 3% of the state General Fund. 

Michigan also is projected to be 890 psychiatrists short of what is necessary in the state by 2030. The state had about 1,100 psychiatrists as of 2016. 

As of 2019, 25 out of 83 counties in Michigan had no psychiatrist available while 10 had no psychologist in addition to there being no psychiatrist. In the state, there are also 7 counties that have no psychologist, psychiatrist or substance abuse facility. 

Although there is still work to be done, Chang is confident that these bills will garner bipartisan support to make change in the mental health system. 

“We have a lot of great co-sponsors, both Democrat and Republican,” Chang said. “This should be a priority and I’m hopeful we can get it done.”


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Julia Forrest
Julia Forrest

Julia Forrest is a contributor to the Michigan Advance. She has been covering Michigan and national politics for two years at the Michigan Daily and OpenSecrets. She studies public policy at the University of Michigan.