Redirecting offenders from jail to support services: New program comes to Walla Walla

Jessie Brandt, Staff Reporter

A new initiative in Walla Walla is diverting low-level offenders to community-based assistance instead of jail.

Housed within local behavioral healthcare agencies, the Arrest and Jail Alternatives Grant program is in its second month of implementation in Walla Walla County.

The program provides mental health support, addiction treatment, meal and housing assistance, emergency shelter and other services tailored to the needs of participating offenders. $450,000 in total will go to Comprehensive Healthcare, Blue Mountain Heart to Heart and the Walla Walla Police Department to carry out this Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) initiative.

The target is to serve 70 people by June 2021. So far, 31 participants are enrolled in the program.

“We provided 122 different services in the month of January, we had 27 referrals to services — including housing, shelter and treatment,” said Regina Myers, Comprehensive Healthcare’s project manager for LEAD.

When the Police Chiefs Association released funding for Eastern Washington last May, Myers said, “our community jumped on it.”

“There’s a population of people in our community that are high utilizers of our systems,” Myers said. “They’re oftentimes jailed as a result of their mental health or substance-use symptomology and presentation out in the community.”

Officers call case managers from LEAD into the field if they believe an individual engaged in low-level criminal behavior needs mental health or addiction care. The prosecutor’s office determines who can be involved in the program. An offender’s charges may be amended or even dropped due to successful participation in the program.

Myers said her team is able to provide services directly to individuals, to “meet the clients where they are, and then start addressing those needs without them having to be enrolled in a service.”

“Our hope is that law enforcement will have the support that they need to address behavioral healthcare needs in our community in a really meaningful and powerful way,” Myers said. “That street outreach case management will become more of a presence… and we’ll become known as a supportive service, especially around our homeless populations in Walla Walla. And [we’ll] start networking more with our housing providers so that we can get people off the streets and into supported living environments.”

Professor of Philosophy Mitch Clearfield, who offers courses on incarceration, highlighted the program’s goal to “increase resilience, stability and well-being for clients served.” The most important part of this initiative, Clearfield said, is “the lives that will go better as a result of this, the families that will be benefited by not having a loved one cycling in and out of jail or prison repeatedly.” 

Clearfield said that in the United States there is a pervasive belief that personal responsibility and assistance from others are in conflict.

“We think that providing assistance to someone . . . shows that we think that they are not responsible for their behavior. And I think the opposite is true,” Clearfield said. “I think services like these enhance someone’s responsibility, choices, control over their own life and their family’s life.”

Programs offering assistance like LEAD are supported by the public in part because the opioid epidemic impacted “every corner of the country,” Clearfield said. “More people in rural communities have more personal experience.”

Clearfield hopes that this initiative becomes a trend and that for the sake of this program’s survival, it isn’t written off if clients make mistakes.

“A program doesn’t have to be perfect to be worthwhile,” Clearfield said.

Senior Coco Gray, an intern for The Successful Transition and Re-Entry Project, a local organization helping previously incarcerated people, said that the U.S. significantly over-incarcerates. While the nation comprises 5 percent of the global population, it has 25 percent of the world’s prison population. Diversion programs are especially important, Gray said, because mental health issues and drug abuse aren’t assisted or alleviated in prison. 

“I think intervening prior to people being incarcerated is probably a really strong and important part of stopping the cycle of incarceration,” Gray said.

Instead of starting from scratch, Walla Walla County’s new program is networking with similar initiatives across the nation. 

Walla Walla’s program is run by behavioral health care agencies and is directly linked to crisis and residential facilities, outpatient services and medication-assisted treatment. This is unlike other diversion initiatives in the state that are housed within law enforcement entities.

“We are able to be responsive to service needs more quickly than other programs in the state of Washington,” Myers, the project manager, said. “The adaptations that we’ve made in Walla Walla . . . have sparked the interest of the state.”

“It’s really exciting to be a part of,” Myers said. “We’re getting a lot of questions from programs over in Burien and Port Angeles about how to get connected so that they can make those improvements and changes as well.”