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Abt Study Cites Five Promising Approaches to Jail Diversion For People With Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders

Rockville, Md.  –  People with behavioral health conditions such as serious mental illness and substance use disorders, including opioid-use disorder, are three- to six-times more likely than the general population to be involved with the justice system. Without coordinated intervention, they risk cycling in and out of the mental health, substance use and criminal justice systems, a costly cycle that undermines recovery.

But a new study from Abt Global for the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation offers important insights on state and local pre-booking jail diversion programs serving this population.  They show promise that they can help break the cycle of justice involvement for people with these conditions and get them the services they need. The pre-booking jail diversion programs studied included:

  • ANGEL Program, Gloucester, Mass.
  • Drug Abuse Response Team (DART), Lucas County, Ohio.
  • Homeless Outreach Team (HOT), Wichita, Kan.
  • Mental Health America Nebraska (MHA-NE) Respond Empower Advocate Listen (REAL).
  • Oakland Community Health Network (OCHN), Oakland County, Mich.

All of the programs rely on cross-system collaborations and most use community policing strategies.

“Many individuals with substance use and mental health conditions can wind up in the justice system, which impacts recovery and has costs to the community,” said Abt’s Sarah Steverman, project director of the study. “As communities grapple with the opioid crisis, jurisdictions are looking for alternatives to incarceration that promote recovery, prevent overdose and reduce costs. The good news is that communities around the country are trying innovative and collaborative approaches to jail diversion for this population.” 

While the programs have not been formally evaluated, Abt’s case studies of these programs show that they can intercept people with behavioral health conditions before they are arrested. The DART program, for example, links 80 percent of the clients that engaged with their officers to treatment. According to program data, HOT helped place 932 people in housing in 2011. The study also found that rather than establishing a new program, it’s more efficient to use existing systems and give law enforcement incentives to divert people in crisis to treatment instead of jail. For these initiatives to be successful, communities must have adequate resources for behavioral health services and sustainable funding for activities such as police training. Future studies can address program effectiveness and local implementation, adaptations and opportunities for program sustainability.

To learn more about the study, read the report.

About Abt Global
Abt Global is an engine for social impact, dedicated to moving people from vulnerability to security.  Harnessing the power of data and our experts’ insights, we provide research, consulting and technical services globally in the areas of health, environmental and social policy, technology and international development.

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