Nashville-Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall is partnering with Mental Health America of Middle Tennessee (MHAMT) to bring attention to the ever-growing crisis of incarcerating individuals with mental illness. The one-day summit, titled ‘Music City Tackles Mental Health’ and scheduled for March 5 at Vanderbilt University, will feature speakers and panelists from across the country. Discussions will include historical and medical perspectives, impacts on the criminal justice system, and innovative, successful programs.
“It is certainly no secret my passion is working to decriminalize mental illness. I want to bring attention to the fact we hide mental illness and charge the bill to local jails by calling it a criminal justice matter,” Hall said. “People like to say we deinstitutionalized the mentally ill in the late 1960s. No, we didn’t. We began institutionalizing them through incarceration. It is time we begin having open and honest conversations about how we treat the most vulnerable of our citizens. I am not satisfied with what is happening now, and the taxpayers shouldn’t be either.”
As an executive board member of the National Sheriffs’ Association, Hall has learned one of the most critical subjects to the nation’s 3,500 sheriffs is dealing with the mentally ill in jail. It’s certainly not a problem unique to Nashville. Taxpayers across the country are paying for a person to be arrested, booked, secured, and housed as a security threat inside facilities that are not designed with mental health treatment in mind. Additionally, correctional staff is being asked to manage this most difficult population with little or no training.
“We are all failing if we do not allow this subject to come out of the shadows. You would not incarcerate a person for having cancer. Why are we incarcerating individuals because they have mental illness? As a society, we have conditioned ourselves to believe abnormal behavior demands the attention of law enforcement. That has to change and I hope this summit is another step in exposing our failures,” Hall said.
A signature reform, led by Hall, is the design and implementation of a Behavioral Care Center (BCC) adjacent to the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office (DCSO) Downtown Detention Center, currently under construction. BCC staff will work to divert those arrested, and who meet the specified criteria, to a therapeutic environment in lieu of jail. The one-of-its kind facility is scheduled to open in approximately 18 months.
Hall’s summit partner is Mental Health America (MHA). MHA is the nation’s oldest and largest mental health advocacy organization, and its local affiliate has been serving Middle Tennessee for 71 years. MHAMT works to connect the community with specialized mental health and wellness resources, provide services that improve the quality of life, and promote effective services where mental health needs exist. Dr. Tom Starling, the local chief executive officer (CEO) of MHAMT, is the incoming board chair of the national MHA, is proud to be partnering with local law enforcement on this effort.
“When I spoke to Sheriff Hall, our organization was enthusiastic about joining with him to help shine a spotlight on an issue that many people do not want to acknowledge,” Starling said. “People with a mental illness often need treatment and recovery, not incarceration; and there are programs across the U.S. that Tennessee could implement. I appreciate our community having a leader like Sheriff Hall who wants to put energy and resources into such an impactful subject.”
Former Connecticut legislator Paul Gionffrido, who now serves as the national CEO of MHA, will be the featured morning speaker. Cook County (Chicago, Ill.) Sheriff Tom Dart, who recently appeared on 60 Minutes because of his innovation in the subject, will be the afternoon speaker. The crowd of approximately 250 will hear from panelists that include a forensic psychologist from New York, medical experts from both Vanderbilt University and Meharry Medical College, a clinical professor from University of Chicago Law, sheriffs from Colorado and Wisconsin, an associate professor and director of Center for Health in Justice Involved Youth at the Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis, and a Memphis attorney/outpatient civil commitment advocate.
The event is being sponsored by Vanderbilt Behavioral Health and Correct Care Solutions.
For more information about Sheriff Daron Hall and the DCSO, visit www.sheriff.nashville.gov. MHAMT’s website is www.mhamt.org.