An ambitious push for an $8 million program designed to keep Minnesota’s mentally ill in treatment and out of jail could not only save the state millions, but provide the proper and necessary care for people in crisis.

As initially reported earlier this month, a bipartisan measure dubbed the Mental Health Jail Diversion Grant Program would create four "diversion hubs" throughout Minnesota where law enforcement may take patients instead of jail.  The short-term treatment and resource centers would serve multiple purposes, said the measure’s author, Sen. Barb Goodwin, DFL-Columbia Heights. In addition to reducing unnecessary jail time and freeing up police resources, it’ll save communities millions and get the mentally ill the help that they need in a comprehensive manner.

“People are being recycled over and over again and it’s costing the state a lot of money through the courts, through the jails, through the emergency rooms,” Goodwin said. “And the service is just so disjointed that people that have a mental illness are told ‘OK you’re done here, go look for housing or some other service, and it’s not going to happen.”

Part of the legislation would appropriate $500,000 to Beltrami County to start its own program. Since 1980 to 2015, the Beltrami County Jail's average population jumped 600 percent from 21 to 130. Of those inmates more than 70 percent have been diagnosed with some form of mental illness.

“We may be the epitome of crisis here,” said Dave Hancock R-Bemidji. “But we also have the stakeholders in place.”

The centers would be key in outstate Minnesota, where law enforcement must often transport the mentally ill hundreds of miles before they can receive the proper treatment. The measure is modeled after an endeavor in Orange County, Florida that has served 47,000 people in 10 years, while saving the county up to $20 million in jail costs and between $17 and $44 million by avoiding emergency room visits.

The proposed program does more than simply warehouse the mentally ill, said co-author Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River.

“We’re not just dealing with a onetime incident and returning that person back onto the street, but we’re getting that person back into the fold and getting them the services they need.” he said.

Still, Zerwas acknowledged there’s still a multitude of challenges when it comes to dealing with the Minnesota’s mentally ill residents, nor will it keep them out of jail entirely.

“This isn’t a silver bullet,” he said. “But this is one important step to move the ball forward.”

Goodwin said the bill has received mostly broad support. After clearing the Senate Judiciary Committee, it will be heard Wednesday in the Senate Health and Human Services Policy Committee.

Hennepin County District Judge Jay Quam, a vocal advocate for keeping the mentally ill out of the system, said that as it stands, law enforcement has three options for dealing with the mentally ill: Leaving them on the street, bringing them to the emergency room, or bringing them to jail “where at that point, nothing good happens.”

The diversion programs, he said, are a best fourth option.

“What judges see over and over are people that come into the system, not getting better, and coming back through and through,” he said. “If we solve this problem, we’ll have plenty of work to do with people that doesn’t involve mental illness.”

Photo: Sen. Barb Goodwin, at podium, explains the legislation, accompanied by Reps. Dave Hancock, Nick Zerwas and law enforcement advocates.

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