Behavioral health issues in criminal system involves statewide approach

Behavioral health issues in criminal system involves statewide approach

BISMARCK, ND (KFYR) – Over the past several years, law enforcement and attorneys have seen an increase in individuals with behavioral health issues making their way through the justice system. Mental illness treatment is one component advocates say can reduce crime but making sure people don’t fall through the cracks is an uphill battle.

Most people suffering from mental illness are not violent, and they’re actually more likely to be the victim of a crime than commit a violent crime. That’s according to a study published by the World Psychiatric Association. But those who are suffering from untreated mental illness are more likely to interact with police which can increase the odds of incarceration.

After someone is booked into jail at the Burleigh County Detention Center, they meet with a behavioral health specialist. The staff addresses behavioral health issues every day. Issues can be made worse simply by being behind bars.

“Anybody that gets incarcerated in any type of correctional facility, it is a crisis in their life which creates stress with them,” said Maj. Trent Wangen, Burleigh County Sheriff’s Department.

Specialist Mark Kemmet monitors the cases of about 20 people with behavioral health needs each week. The biggest challenge is the pace individuals move through the facility.

“I’ve spent two/three hours in the morning with a person who really needs help, leave for lunch, come back to continue my meeting with them and they’ve been bonded out,” said Mark Kemmet, behavioral health specialist at the Burleigh Morton County Detention Center.

His goal is to quickly connect those in crisis with services.

“This is jail, it’s not a treatment center, we aren’t going to fix years and years of problems in a couple, three weeks,” added Kemmet.

Yet he hopes individuals don’t stay in jail longer than necessary.

Jail is just the first hurdle. Travis Finck, who oversees public defender services in North Dakota says cases of individuals with mental health concerns have increased and are sometimes slow to move through the courts. In response, legislators updated competency law for the first time since the 70s.

“We noticed in some of our offices, our attorneys were struggling, I think some of the judges were struggling, really understanding how to deal with this, so what we did was brought together a work group that included doctors from the state hospital, prosecutors , defense lawyers,” said Travis Finck, executive director for the North Dakota Commission on Legal Counsel for Indigents.

Local, regional, and state departments work together to make sure people receive help they need, but resources and wait times can vary.

“The work is ongoing and it’s important work. Just for people to know in the state of North Dakota, we are working on these issues,” said Finck.

He says that we have a duty under the Constitution to not convict people that don’t understand what is going on.

Different states take different approaches to the issue. South Dakota created mental health courts to handle people with persistent mental illness as they move through the legal system. As of this year, North Dakota’s judges are participating in a training program to better manage individuals with behavioral health needs.

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