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New Boone County council to address mental health in prison system

This image shows a close-up of a key lock in a beige jail cell.
Grant Durr
The goal of the program is to lower recidivism, as well as keep people out of the criminal justice system in the first place.

Boone County will soon have additional resources for people struggling with mental health that are at-risk of entering or reentering the prison system.

The Health and Justice Coordinating Council will aim to provide resources for people struggling with mental health and substance abuse challenges. The goal of the program is to lower recidivism, as well as keep people out of the criminal justice system in the first place, Boone County Commissioner Janet Thompson said.

The council will review current policies regarding inmate mental health and evaluate what new practices need to be implemented to better support people already in the criminal justice system or at-risk of entering it.

“If we are using our jail as our largest mental health facility in our county, which is the case, is that a wise use of resources?” Thompson said.

Before the council can begin operating, a coordinator needs to be selected.

“They’ll work on supporting communications and collaborative coordination between and among key criminal justice system officials, advisory bodies, agencies, departments and community leaders,” Boone County Community Services Department Director Joanne Nelson said.

Nelson said she hopes to have the coordinator role filled by the spring, but admits it is still somewhat up in the air.

Thompson praised the Community Mental Health Act of 1969, which sought to readmit people into the community who had been previously institutionalized. However, she said there are some cases that still need to be handled by the criminal justice system.

“We can’t say just because you have a mental health issue or substance issue it’s a free right, its not,” Thompson said. “If you’re creating an issue of public safety, then there’s going to be times and places where people end up in our jail.”

As of December 2023, only five counties around Springfield, Kansas City and St. Louis have enacted in-jail treatment options, according to previous Missourian reporting.

While the council is not officially active yet, some coordinators have been sent to learn about the best practices from other jurisdictions to help bring those ideas to Columbia.

On a state scale, the Missouri Association of Counties created a steering committee for policing, justice and mental health, which Thompson is also a part of.

The association is currently working on instituting reentry navigators. Thompson describes the reentry navigators as people, most likely peers, connecting recently released inmates with resources aimed at preventing recidivism.

“That’s something that we need to have on the local level as well, to have a plan for reentry,” Thompson said. “So that we’re not just creating and supporting a revolving door in our jails.”

The Columbia Missourian is a community news organization managed by professional editors and staffed by Missouri School of Journalism students who do the reporting, design, copy editing, information graphics, photography and multimedia.
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