GREENFIELD — Hancock County Sheriff Brad Burkhart has a proposal for a new program he believes could help county residents struggling with mental health issues or substance abuse, while avoiding charging them with a crime.

“The state mindset right now is mental health, addictions. They’re trying to come up with new programs… for the community to try and deal with mental health, and one of the big things right now is mental health in our jails,” Burkhart recently told the Hancock County Council.

Burkhart said much of the discussion on mental health and addiction is focused on keeping struggling people out of jail if it’s not the right place for them. One way Hancock County could do that, he said, would be to repurpose part of its current jail as a “behavioral care center.”

The model is based on a facility under construction in Nashville. According to The Tennessean, the 60-bed center will provide inpatient treatment to people whose criminal behavior is caused by mental illness. If they comply with treatment, they will not be charged with a crime. The facility is expected to open later this year.

Burkhart would like to bring something similar to Hancock County.

“To me, it’s a pre-charge diversion type of program,” Burkhart said. “If they don’t comply, they don’t do what they’re supposed to do, we can always turn around and file the charges.”

Burkhart said he learned of the behavior care center model from the Indiana Sheriff’s Association.

The county is constructing a new jail and sheriff’s administration building. The current facility would then be repurposed and would likely house other county departments, including the probation department and Community Corrections, county commissioners have said.

“This is not to complicate the issue or anything, but if we could keep people out of the jail who don’t necessarily need to be in jail, that reduces our numbers; it reduces recidivism. It keeps them out of the criminal justice system, it reduces (use of) our court system, so it really affects the whole judicial system in a way,” Burkhart said.

People who are arrested for drug crimes have high rates of recidivism, meaning they are often arrested again after being released. A 2018 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 76.9 percent of drug offenders arrested in 2009 were arrested again within five years. Nearly half were arrested again within one year.

Other research, like a 2017 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, has suggested that sending drug users to prison does not help prevent them from using drugs again.

Burkhart said that when mental health treatment facilities do not exist, people struggling with mental health issues often end up in jail. Even for people who could be convicted of a drug crime, addiction treatment may be a better fit than imprisonment, he said.

“Yeah, it’s a crime, but can you help them in another way without getting them into the criminal justice system?” Burkhart said. “Once they get into the criminal justice system, it’s hard to get them out. It really is.”

Burkhart said he thinks many of the people on probation or participating in the Community Corrections work release program are set up for failure, because they are often dealing with addictions but must stay sober as a condition of their release.

The county already offers several programs to offenders dealing with drug addiction, including drug court and the 12-steps-based Jail Interdiction Program established in 2018. A behavioral care center would be in addition to those programs.

The Hancock County prosecutor’s office recently decided to begin charging people who overdose with a crime after first-responders assist them. Prosecutor Brent Eaton told the Daily Reporter earlier this week the charge would likely be possession of a controlled substance, a Level 6 felony punishable by up to 2½ years in jail.

“Interventions leading to drug treatment are the most effective forms of saving the lives of opioid addicts. The criminal justice system can be a highly effective form of intervention when utilized properly,” Eaton said of the new policy in a statement.

Burkhart’s presentation to the council took place earlier this month, before Eaton and Greenfield Police Chief Jeff Rasche discussed the idea of jailing people who overdose on opioids in a story in the Daily Reporter.

Council members were generally receptive to the idea of creating a behavioral treatment center, and said they would need to further examine the program and how it would affect the county’s finances.

Hancock County is a model for dealing with addiction treatment in many ways, Burkhart said, but could do more with a better facility.

“I’m not saying this is a program for everybody. It’s not. But I think this is a way for some people to avoid being wrapped up in the criminal justice system,” Burkhart said.

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