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How Funding Mental Health Could Keep People Out Of Prison

Two inmates at the Monroe County Jail.

Birdena Lee Oakley was at the peak of her career as an opera singer.

“I toured throughout France, Spain, Italy, Germany,” she says. “I went on to perform in different countries such as Switzerland, Poland, Hungary, I traveled all over the world. It was one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had.”

It wasn’t easy getting to this point. As a child living in Detroit, both her mother and father were put in prison, and Oakley was sent to live at a halfway house until she could be placed with a foster family.

That never happened.

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“I ended up spending my junior high school and all throughout my high school years there at the halfway house for women who were getting ready to reenter the community from prison. They were all on probation, and I was sort of like the mascot,” she recalls. “There I learned a lot of street sense. I learned how to be slick, and I also found out that I loved drugs and alcohol.”

Oakley had determination though. She loved music and sold drugs to pay for piano lessons.

The lessons paid off. She received a scholarship to the University of Michigan and graduated with a degree in operatic voice.

But her love for drugs and alcohol never left. They finally caught up with her in Paris where she also started experiencing symptoms of schizophrenia.

She took leave from the opera company and eventually made her way back to the United States. At the urging of New York City conductor, Oakley moved to Bloomington, Ind., to train under a voice teacher.

It didn’t work out, and Oakley soon found herself facing criminal charges for illegally buying drugs, which came with a possible prison sentence of up to 12 years behind bars.

Fortunately for Oakley, she got connected with Centerstone, a mental health and addictions service center, and after only a few months in jail, she entered
a drug rehab program, which
she completed.

Oakley’s stories are inspiring, but many lawmakers think they are too rare. Many people do
not get mental health or addictions treatment, and end up sitting in prison for years.

That is why, last year, lawmakers passed an overhaul of the state’s criminal code. It aims to keep low-level offenders from being sent to prison and, instead, help them find services and corrections programs at the local level. This year, legislators will decide how to fund that overhaul.

Overfilled Prisons And Jails

A main impetus for the changes to the criminal code is the growth of Indiana’s prison population.

As seen from the chart below, Indiana’s prison population has nearly tripled since 1987 to 28,000 inmates in 2014. That number is expected to jump to more than 31,000 by 2019.

Number of Adult Offenders Sentenced to DOC 

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But at the local level, officials say they’re also running out of room.

“Our big concern is we have a jail cap,” says Monroe Circuit Court Chief Probation Officer Linda Brady. “We can’t put more people in jail than the cap allows, so if we hit the cap, which sometimes we do, we don’t have a lot of options.”

If counties are supposed to take on some of the burden, officials say the money has to follow. 

“We can’t incarcerate our way out of this problem.”
– Kim Manlove

“More probation officers, community corrections officers to keep people supervised, mental health treatment slots, substance abuse treatment,” Brady says, listing off what she sees as key funding needs.

Researchers and service providers understand mental illness and substance abuse much better than they did just a couple decades ago, which helps when policy makers are determining which programs to fund.

“We’re really at a place where we know so much more about why people do what they do,” Linda Grove-Paul, vice president of recovery and innovation at Centerstone, says, referring to people who commit crimes related to their mental illness or addiction.

But many advocacy groups agree there is still a dearth of resources to address those causes.

“We only pay for mental health and addiction issues when they get to that very severe stage. In some ways it’s waiting to treat cancer with radiation until it gets to stage 4,” says Kim Manlove, director of the Indiana Addictions Issues Coalition.

By some estimates, up to 80 percent of the prison population suffers from mental illness or addiction, and Manlove says they aren’t getting proper treatment in prison.

“When someone who has mental health or substance abuse issue commits a crime, they immediately, once the handcuffs go on, get $20,000 worth of services, but those services are incarceration and little or none of that $20,000 right now goes toward any sort of treatment for their mental health or substance abuse issues,” he says.  “We can’t incarcerate our way out of this problem.”

Criminal Code Funding Solution Will Likely Take Years

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State Representative Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, been a significant player in the criminal code rewrite. His goal is to take some of that $20,000 and put it toward training more addictions counselors, organizing mental health services and getting offenders into community corrections or home-detention programs.

“By getting that money down to the local level to programs that we know have worked in other places, that’s going to break the cycle of recidivism,” he says. “That’s going to save us even more money because of the snowball effect, and we’ll be way ahead of the game if we just make the initial investments that are needed to ensure we get the new program in place.” 

“The criminal justice reform will fail if we do not fund the programs properly at the local level.”
– Rep. Matt Pierce

Lawmakers haven’t said exactly how much money they are considering giving to local corrections and mental health programs, but the Indiana Supreme Court chief justice is asking for $10 million per year, which would be given out in the form of grants. Those grants would cover costs for probations departments and mental health and addiction treatment centers.

The problem is that moving offenders out of the prison system takes time, so Department of Correction officials say the state can’t reallocate money from its budget to local programs just yet. In fact, the DOC is asking the state for a 3 percent budget increase for the next two years.

Pierce says if lawmakers want to find the money to both fund the DOC and invest in criminal code reform at the local level, they can.

“It’s just a matter of all the other budget priorities that tend to crowd in,” he says. “I’m not going to breathe easy until I see that final budget with the proper amount of funding that we need.”

Pierce says lawmakers should set aside some money this year, then re-evaluate it every two years for at least the next six years. By then, he hopes the Department of Correction will start seeing savings.

But he emphasizes the initial investment is crucial.

“The criminal justice reform will fail if we do not fund the programs properly at the local level,” he says.

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