In 2017, Equitas engaged in dialogue to disentangle mental health and criminal justice with leaders in Indiana; the Mid-Atlantic region including Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia; Los Angeles; New York; Milwaukee; and Chicago. We released Course Corrections documents listing participants’ priorities from three of those regions, and fourth is in the final stages of the collaborative editing process. Work with policy- and decision-makers in each region has continued and will remain an integral part of Equitas’ programming in 2018.
In Equitas’ home state of Colorado, we partnered with legislators and stakeholders working at the intersection of mental health and criminal justice, and with the Office of Governor Hickenlooper, to recommend reforms. The issuing of those recommendations was followed by the passage of a number of bills with a combined fiscal impact of more than $44 million to support interventions including crisis response, police training, diversion, supportive housing programs, improvements to mental health treatment, and more. Building on these successes, Equitas continues to partner with advisory and working groups from around the state to develop a statewide strategic plan to promote positive behavioral health outcomes, reduce incarceration and justice-involvement, and to increase prosperity.
Considering the national landscape, at the beginning of 2017, Americans concerned with the mental health of communities rode a wave of optimism from the enactment at the end of 2016, of the 21st Century Cures Act, which has since been in the implementation process within a number of government agencies. Throughout the last 12 months, district attorneys in a number of jurisdictions across the nation took a progressive turn toward real criminal justice reform. In October, the White House declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency, which was considered a tempered but real victory for behavioral health advocates. Closing out the year in mid-December, the Interdepartmental Serious Mental Illness Coordinating Committee (ISMICC), established by the Cures Act, released recommendations to federal policymakers to address the needs of adults with (serious mental illnesses) and children and youth with (serious emotional disturbances) and their families.
There is no sure way of predicting which way our nation’s shifty, and media-driven political winds will blow in the coming year. But despite reversals in justice reform emanating from the current administration, Equitas sees a great deal of momentum across the country as sensible Americans in cities, counties, states, and bipartisan multi-state cross-sector coalitions push for the mental health, substance use, and criminal justice reforms our communities so sorely need.
The pathway to healing a terribly divided nation must necessarily pass through the realm of mental health. We must disentangle mental health and criminal justice, and manage substance use as a public health rather than as a public safety issue. By criminalizing and penalizing the ill and the suffering, we inflict a critical wound on our wellbeing and integrity. For it is our collective mental health which is at stake as we strive to close the gap between the noble things we are proud to think and say about ourselves as Americans—and the ignoble ways we continue to behave, especially towards those who are most vulnerable and in need of guidance, support, care, and kindness.