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For the last four years, Washtenaw County’s Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation Millage has provided financial support to reduce recidivism rates–the rates at which individuals return to jail after serving their time–among Washtenaw County jail residents with mental health and substance use disorders (MHSUD).
Across the nation, recidivism rates are highest among individuals with mental health and substance use disorders because most jails can’t effectively address the behavioral needs and root issues–inside and outside the jail–that contribute to criminal behavior.
But two Washtenaw County initiatives aim to reverse that problem (1) millage-funded reentry initiatives and (2) jail-based mental health and substance use treatment services.
In 2019, the first year of millage funding, the millage matched a $1 million Bureau of Justice Administration (BJA) grant given to the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office to offer more robust programs and supports for jail residents with mental health and substance use disorders–particularly for those with housing instability, which is another significant risk factor for recidivism.
In 2020, millage funds made it possible to hire a reentry coordinator, reporting to Renee Casey, the county’s manager of community corrections, to lay a foundation for the work. Millage funds also made it possible to hire peer outreach workers and case managers to provide enhanced supportive services.
“We talked about increasing reentry support for years, but we didn't have the resources,” says Renee Casey. “Now we have a full team and a comprehensive, cohesive process.”
New services started coming online later that year, including:
While some jail-based services were limited to protect jail residents during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the county’s ability to effectively connect people to mental health support, substance use disorder treatment, and other stabilizing services was significantly enhanced.
“Coming into the jail, you often don’t know when you'll get out,” says Aaron Suganuma, the reentry coordinator. “It could be very quick. So our goal has been to reach people as early as possible to figure out what’s been going on with them and connect them to resources that will promote their long term stability.”
From 2020 to 2022, the number of services the reentry team provided grew. In 2022, the reentry services team provided more than 600 reentry-specific services to jail residents.
In terms of services, the reentry team primarily focused on 1) identifying MHSUD and other psychosocial needs early; 2) helping people connect to critical programming and support services in the jail; and 3) helping people establish a detailed and thoughtful reentry plan as they got closer to their release date.
Beyond what’s classified as general reentry services, grant and millage funds have funded new programs and partnerships, including:
"The funding is doing exactly what we'd hoped it would do,” says Aaron Suganuma. “It has improved the continuum of care and increased the jail’s capacity to provide supportive services. Providing more and better reentry services to people has resulted in less people coming back into the jail, and this is during a time when we have seen the severity of MHSUD and other compounding risk factors increase significantly.”
“It’s required that jails have a medical team, and that these teams include mental health services,” says Lisa Gentz, a program administrator at Washtenaw County Community Mental Health (WCCMH) who supports jail mental health and the county’s Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation Millage.
Since 2007, before the reentry team existed, WCCMH provided mental health and psychiatric services for incarcerated people in the jail, then continued care into the community.
When jail-based WCCMH staff have knowledge of and links to local resources like housing and substance use providers, they can make connections to resources before people even leave the jail—making the reentry transition easier on the individual. And when individuals with mental health and substance use disorders leave the jail, they can receive up to six months of follow up care from WCCMH.
“It’s really important that the county contracts WCCMH as the jail mental health provider rather than other national medical and mental providers who don’t have any connection to the local community,” says Gentz. “Not only does this help decrease the number of days spent in jail, it also can reduce the likelihood that an individual returns to jail six months after release.”
In 2020, the recidivism rate—calculated by readmission rates within six months of release—for individuals who had previously been in care at Washtenaw County Community Mental Health (WCCMH) was 62.5%.*
For those individuals that received treatment in the jail by WCCMH, the rate dropped to 45.8%. And for inmates who received follow-up care once they left jail by WCCMH, the rate was even lower at 35.7%.
These metrics demonstrate a correlation between the level of care WCCMH provides to inmates and their likelihood to be readmitted to jail. And it’s likely that as new reentry services are brought online, recidivism rates will continue to decline.
*This data comes from WCCMH’s jail diversion data.