Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov sees a lot of people come through the court system who he doesn't think really belong in prison.
They're people who struggle with mental illness and commit small crimes. But instead of seeing them punished, Polikov would rather see them get treatment.
Polikov has been pushing to help for years, and now his vision might become a reality.
He wants to start a program to divert mentally ill people who have committed a low-level crime into a treatment program instead of leaving them with a conviction on their record.
The goal is to treat people before little issues become big problems. Polikov said he hopes that helping people get treatment before there's a crisis would prevent tragedies.
“After the Sandy Hook shooting, people are demanding we do something,” Polikov said.
It would also save money and ease overcrowding by keeping people out of jail.
Next year's proposed budget for Sarpy County has about $50,000 to hire someone to oversee the program. The Sarpy County Board will vote on the budget Tuesday.
The measure has the support of Sarpy County Public Defender Tom Strigenz.
“From a defense attorney's perspective, we love (diversion programs) because the outcomes — when they're successful — are what everybody wants,” he said.
Strigenz said this proposal fits well with a statewide push toward “problem-solving courts.”
Polikov said that once the new coordinator is hired, his office will come up with guidelines for the mental health diversion program.
But generally, he envisions it as a way to connect those who've committed nonviolent crimes with services.
Polikov gives this example of a possible diversion subject: an adult who lives with his parents and has been having troubles managing his mental illness.
The situation escalates to the point where the parents are unable to control their adult child, who might kick a hole in a wall or otherwise be destructive.
The diversion program could require participants to go to therapy, take medication or address any addiction issues.
It would be based on an existing diversion program that allows people who commit alcohol-related crimes, including DUIs, to go through a six-month treatment program rather than be convicted of a crime.
If they don't complete the program, they go back to the court system.
That program has detractors, Polikov said, some of whom believe it's akin to letting people off the hook for committing a crime.
But Polikov said he believes it prevents future crime by putting people on a better path.
He said he's not sure how many people would go through the mental health diversion program, but he believes the number would be significant.
Not everyone accused of a crime is mentally ill, of course, and not all mentally ill people commit crimes.
But when mental illness does interact with public safety, it can be a drain on the system without really solving the underlying problem, said Bellevue Police Chief Mark Elbert.
“If we're trying to do something proactive, that's a step in the right direction,” he said.
When police officers interact with someone who they believe to be mentally ill and dangerous, they can take them into emergency protective custody.
There, a doctor evaluates the person and decides whether to move to keep him or her for longer.
But there are a lot of cases where someone is having a problem — for example, threatening to hurt himself — but doesn't need emergency protective custody. That's where an existing “assessment, support and prevention” program comes in.
Heartland Family Service supplies trained therapists who will come in at the request of law enforcement agencies. They evaluate the person and decide what if any help is needed.
The ASAP teams have seen about 1,500 people since 2008, said Jenny Stewart, director of crisis response teams for Heartland Family Service.
She said the program saves money for taxpayers because it keeps people out of emergency protective custody, which costs about $700 a day.
And it helps connect people to resources they might not even have known about.
Polikov said he hopes a diversion program would have similar benefits and reach more people in need.
“That's what government does,” Polikov said. “Help people who can't help themselves.”