May 8, 2018

This spring, Equitas has been active with projects in several states, completing work in Indianapolis and Denver to convene stakeholders at the intersection of mental health and criminal justice. For the second year, Equitas partnered with NAMI Indiana for their 15th Annual Mental Health & Criminal Justice Summit: Course Corrections, and for the first time ever, Equitas convened public defenders from across the country to discuss and identify priorities for health and justice.

On March 23, 2018, Indiana’s 15th Annual Mental Health and Criminal Justice Summit drew in over 200 stakeholders from around the state. Attendees included law enforcement and public officials, judicial system representatives, behavioral health providers, advocates, and family members involved with NAMI Indiana. At the Summit, author, educator, and advocate Liza Long spoke about her experiences as the mother of a child grappling with behavioral health challenges from a young age. Ms. Long’s keynote presentation, like her book, The Price of Silence: A Mother’s Journey to Save Her Son, investigated the ways in which society stigmatizes mental illnesses and how reactions to these illnesses worsen our response to mental and behavioral health crises.

Following Ms. Long’s presentation, Equitas Executive Director Vincent Atchity delivered a powerful speech on the shared responsibility we all have to pursue mental health and criminal justice reforms in the United States. Referring to the Ship of State, which relies upon a movable government as the rudder that can keep us on course, Dr. Atchity reminded the audience that as a country, we truly are all in this together. As with sailing open seas, navigating the difficult passage of disentangling mental health and criminal justice is only possible when we remember where we are trying to get as a nation. Summit attendees were then prompted to lend their contributions to a 2018 revision of the previous year’s Indiana  Document. Featuring over a hundred signatories, the statements of consensus represented in the document provide navigational waypoints for Indiana’s stakeholders to get back on course toward greater health, justice, and prosperity for all. Revisions to the document are currently underway and a final version will be released this May.

Just days after the Indiana Summit concluded, Equitas again convened stakeholders for a summit focused on disentangling mental health and criminal justice. Produced in partnership with the National Association for Public Defense and the Office of the Colorado State Public Defender, the first ever Course Corrections: National Public Defenders Summit on Mental Health & Criminal Justice was held on March 28 and 29 in downtown Denver. The event was attended by nearly 80 public defenders, visiting from over 20 states and the District of Columbia, and representing every region of the contiguous United States. Such a diverse group certainly faces a multitude of unique regional challenges, yet common themes emerged throughout the event. These commonalities serve as additional navigational waypoints for judicial districts, communities, and states seeking health and justice.

Miami-Dade County Circuit Court Judge Steven Leifman delivered the keynote address on March 28. Judge Leifman, a former public defender, shared his perspective on systems change and strategies for improving mental health and justice systems. The following day, March 29, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper visited with the group, answering questions and sharing his insights on the role of public defense, the power of political advocacy, and the urgent need for improvements to mental health systems across the nation. In the coming weeks, participants in Course Corrections: National Public Defenders Summit, and attendees from the Indiana Summit will finalize their contributions to  co-authored Course Corrections documents identifying priorities for immediate action to disentangle mental health and criminal justice.

Descriptions of the Indiana Summit and the National Public Defenders Summit, a compendium of resources from the latter, and Course Corrections documents for both events can be found on our website. Learn more about the priorities these groups share, and please help us encourage the adoption of these recommendations in your community. Our future depends on your urgent recognition that we must make progress away from where we are, toward the destination we chose to define us as a nation: the Land of Liberty and Justice for all. We will know that we are back on course when enough of us understand that liberty and justice for all must include those who need health care and the support of their communities in order to thrive, rather than the continued discrimination and stigma that lead us to respond to their need with neglect, contempt, and cruel punishment.

 

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