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Judge Steve Leifman

Judge Steve Leifman will hold a presentation at the Stepping Up Summit on April 17 at the Cornhusker Marriott.

The Nebraska Association of County Officials and Lancaster County will host a summit on Wednesday to discuss various ways to reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in Nebraska jails and prisons.

The summit, which will be held from 8:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. at The Cornhusker Marriott, is part of a larger national initiative called Stepping Up. The movement began in the summer of 2015 as a resolution counties could sign onto pledging their commitment to keeping people with mental illnesses out of jail, according to Kim Etherton, who is the director of community corrections for Lancaster County.

She said the event is designed to encourage counties throughout the state as well as stakeholders and other interested parties to talk about community mental health resources and what their communities can do to help residents with mental health problems. A panel of representatives from Lancaster, Sarpy, Douglas and Scotts Bluff counties will discuss steps they have taken to address the issue.

“This particular summit is more of an informational effort to get counties statewide talking and thinking about it, especially county leaders and those people in the communities who have an influence on the issue,” Etherton said. “Our goal in the future then is more of an interactive problem-solving effort, but for this year we'll focus on disseminating information and encouraging counties throughout the state to be involved.”

Currently, about 60 to 75% of people incarcerated in county jails in Nebraska have some sort of behavioral health diagnosis, be it related to mental health or substance abuse, according to Etherton. In many counties across the state, communities do not have adequate resources to combat psychiatric problems that affect one in five Americans, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. As a result, local police officers are often the first point of contact for people in a mental health crisis situation.

Etherton said in many instances, those people are not considered dangerous and placing them in emergency protective custody isn’t an option, so they’re lodged in local jails for minor offenses, such as disturbing the peace.

“Jail does nothing to improve their condition,” Etherton said. “Confining somebody in a jail is generally going to surely cause them to decompensate much faster.”

Representatives from the four counties at the summit will discuss their findings from an exercise called sequential intercept mapping, which is used to identify a community's strengths and weaknesses regarding mental health services and resources, according to Etherton.

“I think it's important for all jurisdictions to understand that they probably have more resources to work with than they realize,” she said.

The summit is headlined by a presentation from Judge Steve Leifman, an associate administrative judge of the Miami-Dade County Court-Criminal Division in Florida. Leifman has spent 19 years working to improve the community mental health resources in Miami-Dade County and move inmates with mental health issues out of incarceration to places where they can receive care. Leifman said his own mapping techniques revealed the inadequacies of his own home county.

“What we discovered is that we were embarrassingly dysfunctional and that we had developed a system that was designed to fail,” he said. “It was cruel and unusual in many ways and we were punishing them for their behaviors when we never offered them the level of services that they need to recover.”

Leifman will be sharing some of the reforms and changes he helped institute in Miami-Dade County, including training for police officers emphasizing diversion and de-escalation when interacting with people going through a mental health crisis rather than arresting them or, in some cases, resorting to use of deadly force.

As a result, the number of arrests in the county have been reduced significantly along with officer injuries and inmate recidivism, according to Leifman.

“The key is to help people get access to treatment and to try and help identify these illnesses earlier because the earlier you identify this illness, like any illness, you get better outcomes,” he said.

Leifman said counties and local communities are at the heart of the solution. By eliminating the stigma involved with mental illness and supporting and funding programs that would provide access and care for mental health, counties will be able to save money and people will see happier, more productive communities, he added.

“But you have to help them get treatment, and we just don't do it,” Leifman said. “We've all become immune to the human suffering, and we walk past people in the street that are homeless talking to themselves, and we blame them for their illness. We wouldn't want one of our loved ones with cancer or heart disease out on the street because there's no treatment available.”

Etherton emphasized the importance of cooperation and collaboration among counties, local governments and the Legislature to finding solutions, something she said she hopes the summit will encourage and continue going forward.

“Working in silos is not solving the problem,” she said. “But together we have a louder voice and we can talk to our senators and the legislature about funding mental health services to a level that makes it so we can take care of our residents.”

To find registration information and a summit agenda, visit www.nacone.org

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7214 or eclopton@journalstar.com.

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2019 city desk intern at the Journal Star

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