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24 Hours From Arrest To Release To Services For Seriously Mentally Ill In New Program

(Photo by Lauren Gilger- KJZZ)
Gary Peltier fills out paperwork with a man just released from the 4th Avenue Jail in downtown Phoenix.

At 7:50 on a Monday night, Gary Peltier was standing outside of the 4th Avenue Jail in downtown Phoenix, waiting for someone to be released at exactly 8 p.m.

Then, the jail doors opened and the man he was waiting for, Marco, walked out holding a plastic bag filled with belongings he had with him when he was arrested.

“Marco? How ya doing, buddy?” Peltier asked, shaking his hand. “My name’s Gary.”

Peltier is an engagement specialist with Southwest Behavioral Health Services’ Criminal Justice Engagement Team. Every day, at three specific times a day, team members like him wait outside of our county jails to pick up people just as they’re released.

Marco was released after just one night in jail by a judge before charges were ever filed against him, and after he agreed to work with Peltier’s team.

“Usually, I stop and get you a sandwich, I don’t know if you’re hungry. I know that jailhouse food isn’t really much to write home about,” Peltier said.

The Criminal Justice Engagement Team works with people who have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness, like Marco, and have been arrested for relatively minor crimes.

“It’s one goal after another, whether it be a driver’s license or navigating through the court system, taking them to court, teaching folks how to do transportation on the bus or giving them bus passes,” Peltier said. “And, most importantly, it’s the encouragement and the hope, you know, that we can give them.”

And, it’s a peer support program, run by people, like Peltier, who have been through substance abuse treatment or mental health treatment before.

“I’ve been through it myself, you know, I’ve been in jail, I’ve been down at CASS,” Peltier said, referring to Central Arizona Shelter Services, the sprawling homeless campus in Phoenix.

From here, Peltier will make sure Marco has a safe place to sleep tonight. Tomorrow, he’ll meet with his new case manager.

“We’re a triage team,” said Rachel Zamora, a senior team leader for the Criminal Justice Engagement Team.

She said, as soon as someone is identified as seriously mentally ill in the jail, the turnaround has to be quick.

“It’s very quick, within a 24-hour time frame, that we get the referral and we meet with the individual,” she said.

This saves their clients from deteriorating behind bars, and saves the entire system money, according to Zamora.

The Criminal Justice Engagement Team was launched in February of this year as a spin-off of the Smart Justice Program, a partnership between the county and the regional behavioral health authority, Mercy Maricopa.

Smart Justice aims to keep low-risk offenders out of the criminal justice system, and help them stay out.

“They’re not offenses toward a person, or even toward property,” said Ken Curry, the director of the Criminal Justice Engagement Team. “It’s mainly misdemeanor offenses, public intoxication, maybe petty theft, stealing cigarettes out of a Circle K.”

Curry said their clients are people who are mentally ill and often go undiagnosed. Then, they start self- medicating with drugs and alcohol, and homelessness and jail are often not far behind.

“When you have someone who is mentally ill and homeless, their options are very few, they’re not on medications, well, sometimes their behavior is dictated by their circumstances,” he said.

And those kinds of crimes, he said, don’t warrant the expense it costs to house someone in jail, when the underlying problem is going untreated.

According to Dr. Dawn Noggle, the mental health director for Maricopa Correctional Health Services, the community costs for jailing those with mental illness are high.

“How much does it cost for people to be in jail, versus how much does it cost to provide these kinds of programs?” she asked.

Noggle said research has been done in Maricopa County that shows that for low-risk offenders, being in jail for just 48 hours can increase their risk re-offending.

“The criminal justice system is not the answer for the seriously mentally ill," Noggle said. "We should work at every opportunity to keep them from coming to jail, divert them when they come and to work towards them not coming back.”

Peltier has done a couple dozen pick-ups outside of the jails in the few months he’s worked for the Criminal Justice Engagement Team. And, there’s only one hiccup.

“Unfortunately, some don’t take the services and some fail. But, you know, some turn the failure into a positive,” he said.

Some of their clients walk out of jail to meet the team and just walk away. And that’s allowed.

“They’re under no obligation to come back, you know,” Curry said.

Curry said that’s an important part of it, actually: It has to be their choice, because help with addiction only works when you’re ready to take it. And, he said, every day in this program people are taking their help.

“They don’t have to!” he said. “But, they’re there, every day, coming back because they want to sit with them. They want to get away from the nonsense and they’re trying, you know, baby steps to change their lives. That’s a good sign.”

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.