Douglas County Jail - teaser (copy) (copy)

Barbed wire on the west side of the Douglas County Jail at 710 S. 17th St.

Law enforcement agencies in Douglas and Sarpy Counties, in cooperation with other organizations, are making impressive strides in striving to deal with inmates’ mental health needs. It’s encouraging that a national organization has designated both counties as innovators on the issue — a distinction it’s given to only 13 counties nationwide.

Douglas County stands out for its strong collaboration among law enforcement, corrections staff and behavioral health agencies. Among the steps taken:

Law enforcement and corrections officers receive specialized training. People are screened for mental illnesses when they’re booked into jail. Multi-disciplinary teams provide care to inmates. Re-entry services help reduce the chances of reoffending.

The Douglas County Board joined the national effort in 2015. On an average day, more than 200 of 1,250 inmates at the Douglas County Jail have a serious mental illness, The World-Herald’s Christopher Burbach reports. Our jail “has become the state’s largest mental health treatment facility, and that must change,” Douglas County Board Member Mary Ann Borgeson said.

In many cases, the inmates’ mental health challenges combine with substance abuse addiction, which makes the need for collaboration with behavioral health specialists all the more important.

“I cannot emphasize enough what a big lift that is to have all those entities working together on the same page,” said Risë Haneberg, a deputy division director for the Stepping Up Initiative, which focuses on mental health issues facing law enforcement and corrections departments.

The Omaha Police Department, for example, has begun placing a mental health therapist in each of its precincts. It’s exceeding the recommended rate for officers who have received specialized training (nearly 30% for the department, compared with a recommendation of 20% to 25%).

Sarpy County, meanwhile, has taken a major step forward on this issue with its plan to build a mental health crisis center, to provide relief for local law enforcement and corrections departments. The $13 million facility, with 22,000 to 25,000 square feet of space, would be the first such facility in the state.

Corrections officials emphasize that there are no easy solutions on this issue and that much more needs to be done in expanding services and providing more diversion programs to keep offenders from even entering jail.

Loren Knauss, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Nebraska, is right in noting, “This is going to help the people in the jails, but it’s also going to help victims. ... And in the long run, it will save taxpayers money.”

The two counties are in the forefront of focusing on this challenging issue and are well deserving of praise from national experts.

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