How to Make Justice Count

An innovative database created by Measures for Justice is helping officials in an Indiana county make smarter policy decisions on how to deal with mentally ill individuals who run afoul of the law.

When it comes to policy decisions that impact the public and thousands of people who move through the criminal justice system each year, anecdotal information can be misleading and expensive.

In Indiana, the McLean County Board expects to use hard numbers from the county’s participation in several data collection projects to devise solutions based on facts—not perceptions—related to mentally ill residents, many of them homeless and prone to commit offenses that land them in jail.

County Administrator Bill Wasson said the county is working with the University of Chicago to develop a database of information on so-called “super utilizers” of mental health services in McLean County that could be shared with public and private agencies.

When agencies know a person’s history as defined by 300 measuring points, the work of helping the individual avoid recurring crises becomes easier, said Wasson.

McLean County Administrator Bill Wasson. Photo by David Proeber/The Pantagraph

“One of our goals is to have actionable information for our agencies so they can make the best decisions about where individuals should be directed for services, or how they can be diverted from the criminal justice system,” said Wasson.

The numbers come from more than a dozen private agencies, including hospitals, in addition to fire, police and the adult and juvenile detention facilities. Records are coded to protect the privacy of the individual whose mental health treatment or interaction with police is examined and added to the database.

The county will be able to compare how it’s doing on a wide range of criminal justice issues later this year when Measures for Justice, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, releases several years of data on McLean County.

See also: TCR May 15, 2017 “Measures for Justice: America How Are We Doing?”

The project offers a county-level view of criminal cases that follows a defendant through all stages of the system. The free data tool is currently available to 300 counties in six states and will expand to include five Illinois counties by the end of the year.

Measures for Justice looks at 32 performance measures based on three primary objectives of the criminal justice system: public safety; fairness; and fiscal responsibility. The data is designed to be a conversation starter that allows users to compare their county with their peers, said Fiona Maazel, director of communications for Measures for Justice.

“We see a need to bring a new degree of transparency to the system that’s perhaps been lacking, so people know what’s going on in the criminal justice system,” said Maazel.

In McLean County, the extensive collection of local numbers was launched by the county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council in 2009 as part of the effort to reduce overcrowding at the jail.

Since then, the Stevenson Center for Community and Economic Development at Illinois State University has drilled down jail numbers to examine factors such as inmate demographics, case processing time and recidivism.

The critical shortage of affordable and supportive housing in McLean County is the focus of the county’s partnership with the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH). The county is in the early stages of exploring whether the CSH “Pay for Success” program to fund housing for people with complex challenges, including homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse disorders, is a good fit. The county received a $200,000 grant from CSH in May for technical assistance related to the data-gathering process.

The CSH housing model relies on partnerships between private and philanthropic groups and investors who work with local governments to provide upfront dollars for housing. Providers are required to prove the success of the program through reduced costs of hospitalization, incarceration and other services frequently accessed by those with unstable living arrangements.

It may take about two years for the county to complete the research needed for the CSH program, said Wasson, but in the meantime the county is looking for other ways to address the housing situation.

McLean County Board Chairman John McIntyre traced the county’s work to reform the local mental health system back to 2012 when former Sheriff Mike Emery brought the issue of mental health care for jail inmates to the attention of the county board.

“The county has taken it on and we’re in it for the long haul,” said McIntyre.

A 2013 report from the National Institute of Corrections called the jail “clearly one of the most professionally managed and forward thinking jails in the nation,” but recommended the county consider major changes to address inadequate housing for nearly 30 percent of the jail population with a mental health diagnosis.

The county subsequently developed the Mental Health Action Plan that laid out priorities for improving the mental health system. The practice of mentally ill housing inmates in the jail’s booking area — a practice jail officials developed to protect vulnerable inmates — was addressed with the county’s plan to construct an 80,000 square foot addition to the jail. The $39 million project underway on the east side of the existing facility is expected to be substantially completed by late 2018.

Edith Brady-Lunny is a 2017 John Jay/Measures for Justice Reporting Fellow. The complete published version of her story is available here. Readers’ comments are welcome.