On February 8, 2015, Natasha McKenna—a 37-year-old offender who suffered from mental illness—died following an incident in which she was tasered four times by law enforcement.
After a week-long delay in transporting her to a county jail in Virginia, where she would be provided with mental-health resources, she became agitated. In an effort to regain control, officers used a stun gun on her multiple times. Despite CPR to revive her, McKenna passed away shortly after.
McKenna had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, and depression when she was just fourteen. Her case highlights a growing issue in county jails and prisons across America: resources are scarce for mentally ill offenders.
In 1992, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) and Public Citizen’s Health Research Group released a report revealing alarmingly high numbers of people with serious mental illness incarcerated in the United States. The subsequent 2002 report showed that little had changed in the preceding ten years.
But shortly after McKenna’s death in 2015, Fairfax County Jail—where she had been held—created a Jail Diversion Program (JDP). The objective of this program is to divert low-risk offenders in mental-health crises to treatment rather than send them to a prison setting that exacerbates their symptoms.
JDPs are designed so that authorities, alongside certified crisis clinicians, have the capacity to decide whether a non-violent offender who suffers from a mental disorder is directed to a JDP where they can receive treatment, or is arrested. JDPs give offenders the opportunity to work with a trained mental-health clinician, ultimately transforming how resources are provided.
Sarah Abbot, the program director of Advocates—a JDP in Massachusetts that works with the Framingham Police Department—believes that JDPs are crucial in early intervention for mentally ill offenders.
During an interview with the Trauma and Mental Health Report, Abbot explained:
“JDP’s effectively divert people with mental illness from the criminal justice system, and have been shown to be successful in the prevention of unnecessary arrests for those who suffer with a mental illness. Police choose to transfer offenders to JDPs 75% of the time.”
Abbot believes that early intervention via JDPs is key to preventing those with a mental illness from reoffending. In 12 years of operation, Advocates has successfully diverted 15,000 individuals from the criminal justice system into treatment.
During calls related to misdemeanors, police respond to the scene with a JDP clinician. After consulting the clinician, the officers use their discretion, along with information from victims and bystanders, to decide whether or not to press charges. Alternatively, the officer can choose to secure treatment for the offending individual at a JDP.
In the latter case, the clinician performs an assessment to determine if the offender meets the criteria for inpatient care. If so, they are diverted from arrest and placed in a local mental-health facility where they receive intensive treatment through the support of counsellors, social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists.
The purpose of JDPs is to de-escalate encounters with mentally ill offenders and create a cooperative environment for assessing the situation. Abbot views their contribution as a form of compassionate justice:
“If we can keep mentally ill individuals out of the criminal justice system, their lives will ultimately be better by default. How much better depends on the quality of the treatment they receive and the individual’s commitment to success.”
The literature on JDPs suggests that placing these individuals in treatment programs within their community, where they have the support of family and friends, inevitably results in lower rates of relapse in comparison to incarceration.
Abbot believes that JDPs are vital in keeping individuals away from the isolation of a jail cell:
“My hope is that we divert people like Natasha McKenna into proper treatment, because once they are in a cell, things can escalate quite quickly.”
If somebody with a mental illness has an arrest on their record, JDPs keep doors open to them for education, employment, and housing. JDPs have the potential to protect individuals like McKenna, and provide offenders suffering from mental illness with a second chance at living stable lives post-arrest.
– Nonna Khakpour, Contributing Writer