A homeless Massachusetts woman with chronic alcoholism and signs of mental illness spent 872 days in jail and has been hospitalized by EMS workers more than 1,000 times.
To first responders in the community of Cambridge, she’s become a regular over the last 13 years, one of the top 10 people local law enforcers encounter on a recurring basis.
But run-ins with the mentally ill are routine for EMS and police across the U.S. and have become an undercurrent in the debate over how to stem violence from those teetering on the edge of a breakdown. A research program announced Tuesday hopes to zero in on those repeat offenders — and end a cycle of incarceration over treatment.
“If the same person is being hauled through the system again and again, it’s obvious they are going through some sort of crisis and they aren’t getting the help they actually need,” said Lynn Overmann of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.
“Currently, how these people are being treated is the least effective way and the most expensive,” said Overmann, who is leading the charge to use data to make informed decisions about criminal justice as part of the program.
The foundation, a non-profit that awards grants, researches an array of issues and offers taxpayer-friendly solutions, will be giving out $4.1 million to cull data from law enforcers, hospitals, social services in three communities to understand how police departments, medical institutions and homeless shelters deal with substance abusers and the mentally ill and provide solutions.
The two-year pilot program will focus on: Middlesex County, Mass.; Long Beach, Calif.; and Johnson County, Iowa.
Researchers say the program will offer a road map for how taxpayer money could be used to help those struggling with substance abuse or mental health issues, rather than constant calls to law enforcers or EMS.
“Placing someone in jail over and over and over again isn’t solving this issue. We can’t incarcerate ourselves out of this problem,” said Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian in Massachusetts, one of the three communities in the program.
Every year, taxpayers lay out $22 billion to incarcerate people — and many of them, about 2 million people, have a mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health. Most officers simply can't identify many of these individuals and get them the right help, Koutoujian said.
"If we can combine databases, we can truly understand what someone is going through and be able to identify a crisis," he said. "Currently, our only powers are to make an arrest, but if we're able to divert these people to getting help, we've not only saved taxpayer money, we've helped them personally."
Not only will the information help save money, Koutoujian said, but it could head off potential incidents of violence.
A Secret Service review of 28 attacks, which claimed nearly 150 lives and wounded hundreds from Orlando to Las Vegas in recent years, found that 64% of suspects showed symptoms of mental illness.
And in 25% of the cases, attackers had been "hospitalized or prescribed psychiatric medications" before the assaults. Recent suspects in Toronto and at a Waffle House in Tennessee also showed signs of mental illness.
"There's no question this will help," Koutoujian said. "Jailing them isn't the answer. It's failed. In fact, the disruption it leaves in someone's life can only exacerbate issues and make things worse."
Most communities have known this is a problem for a very long time, but using data is the clearest way to connect the dots, Overmann said.
"We have to address this at some point because there are extremely high costs and terrible outcomes for these individuals," she said. "This is the start of a fundamental shift in how we examine this issue."