– Christmas was just around the corner and the young single mother was unemployed and facing eviction. Strapped for cash and desperate to pick up diapers for her toddler son, she stashed a pack in her shopping cart, then left the store without paying.

Minutes later, Ariel Borowicz got busted.

When Mankato police brought the 22-year-old to jail for shoplifting, she expected the worst. Instead, she met a social worker who gave her a choice: spend the weekend in jail or participate in a voluntary program that would connect her with services that could help her out of the crisis.

“The program sounded like a better option,” Borowicz said recently.

That program, called the Yellow Line Project, was launched by Blue Earth County last year as a way to help first-time offenders and low-level criminals battling mental or chemical health issues. By linking them to services or programs already in place, the program aims to keep offenders from going to emergency rooms or already crowded jails, while at the same time saving the county money.

In 2017, 75 people participated in the program. Although some, such as Borowicz, were still charged with a crime, all were able to avoid jail, saving the county hundreds of thousands of dollars in jail costs and other services, according to county officials.

Already, the program is becoming a statewide model, with dozens of counties expressing interest in starting similar programs.

Its launch comes as police across Minnesota find themselves responding to an increasing number of mental health-related calls and looking for solutions to the problem.

Already, in St. Louis County, two clinical social workers staff a Duluth transit station, assisting police with calls or following up on cases that involve someone with mental illness. In Minneapolis, police are paired with mental health specialists on some calls as part of their co-responder program. And statewide, more officers are getting training in mental illnesses to better respond to people in crisis.

Besides reducing the number of offenders with mental illness in jails and ERs, programs such as the Yellow Line Project could also potentially prevent deadly incidents.

While most people with mental illness aren’t violent or dangerous, a 2016 Star Tribune analysis of all use-of-force deaths in Minnesota found that at least 45 percent of people killed by law enforcement since 2000 had a history of mental illness or were in a mental health crisis.

The Yellow Line Project takes its name from the yellow tape stripped across the floor at the door of the Blue Earth County jail.

Once there, almost every person arrested goes to the jail’s pre-booking room to meet with a social worker, who asks questions about where they live or whether they’ve been diagnosed with a mental health disorder. Those with mental or chemical health issues and who have been arrested for committing low-level crimes — usually misdemeanors such as thefts and DWIs — are given the chance to participate in the program. People who commit more serious crimes, such as assaults, have no alternative to jail.

Addressing the need

In 2017, the county screened more than 1,000 people taken to the jail. While only 75 were diverted to the Yellow Line Project, another 375 people who were jailed met with a social worker before they got out to set up services such as chemical or mental health treatment.

“We think this is what’s addressing the need best,” said Angela Youngerberg, director of business operations for county Human Services.

County leaders say the program, which went 24/7 last May, will cost $150,000 in 2018, mostly for staffing. In its first six months, however, it saved the county at least $235,000 by diverting people from jail, county officials estimate.

While chemical treatment costs rose about $100,000 from 2016, detox costs dropped by the same amount. The county saved another $240,000, partly by sending fewer residents to the state hospital.

Other savings, such as the need for fewer jail beds or court services, are harder to quantify. In addition, more residents and police are calling on a mobile crisis team, with dispatches up by more than 65 percent, perhaps preventing many offenders from going to jail or the ER.

“Jail is not the place for a certain number of people,” said Mankato Police Chief Todd Miller.

In the days before Christmas, Borowicz’s world was crashing down around her.

After bouncing from city to city, she said, she was overwhelmed by searching for a job, caring for her 1-year-old son and the threat of eviction from her apartment within 72 hours. With so little emotional and financial support, she said she decided to steal diapers, wipes and winter clothes for her son while shopping at a Target store.

“I didn’t know where to go,” she said.

Her arrest was a turning point.

While participating in the Yellow Line Project, Borowicz met weekly for two months with social worker Jessi Hornick, who helped Borowicz apply for Section 8 vouchers to renew her apartment lease. Hornick also accompanied Borowicz on some appointments, connected her with an employment worker, explained how to pay her court fine, and helped her get back on medication and find a therapy group to address her mental health.

Without the program, Borowicz would have spent that Friday night after her arrest — and likely, the entire weekend — in jail, unsure of how to pay bail or who would care for her son.

Now, Borowicz said she’s going to get a job, find day care for her son and finish college.

“I wouldn’t be where I am without the Yellow Line Project,” she said.

Said Hornick, the community-based coordinator: “We’re not trying to get people out of consequences. It’s getting people connected faster to services. There are other Ariels out there.”

That growing need is why the county plans to add a second coordinator to work with Hornick. The county also is training the mobile crisis team and police in how to screen people at the scene of an arrest instead of doing it at the jail.

“There’s more collaboration” now between departments, said sheriff’s Capt. Paul Barta. “We just wanted some other options [to jail].”