Nevada is battling a behavioral health crisis that’s clogging our criminal justice system and filling our prisons with people who need help, not incarceration.
Law enforcement officers are on the frontlines of this struggle. During my 40 years in law enforcement, I’ve seen firsthand the revolving door that is our criminal justice system. With limited treatment options in the community, individuals with mental illness or addiction too often wind up involved in the criminal justice system, where treatment resources are even less accessible. These individuals end up further traumatized, removed from their stable home environments, and usually get released with the same untreated needs as when they went in, and the cycle begins all over again.
We can do better – both for individuals with behavioral health needs and for taxpayers who are paying an enormous price to warehouse those individuals in prison rather than invest in more effective and less costly alternatives that prioritize treatment and supervision in the community over incarceration.
As a Carson City native and a career law enforcement officer, protecting Nevadans’ safety is my highest priority. Too often, though, law enforcement resources are diverted away from dealing with the serious and violent criminals who pose the greatest threat to public safety in order to respond to individuals who would be better served by doctors. That does a disservice to our communities and families, and the situation is getting worse. In Carson City, our office has observed a roughly 85 percent increase in the number of mental health calls for service between 2016 and 2004.
The lack of services in our state has created a crisis where people who are sick are being funneled into our justice system. The data demonstrate that our jails and prisons are packed, warehousing a significant number of individuals with behavioral health needs. The number of people sent to Nevada prisons with mental health needs has grown 35 percent over the last decade. Even more alarming, last year more than half of the women admitted to prison had a mental illness that required treatment or medication.
What I have learned throughout my years of service is that incarceration does not treat addiction or mental health issues. In fact, in my experience, it makes things worse for those who suffer from these issues. Research finds that individuals with behavioral health needs are more likely to be placed in solitary confinement, are more likely to receive higher bail, and are more likely to be physically and emotionally abused by other inmates. What do you think is going to happen when these people are released? Do you think they are more likely to stay out of trouble now than before? This course of action is not smart public safety policy.
In Carson City, we’ve begun to change the way we recognize and respond to individuals with behavioral health issues, and it’s making a huge difference already. We’ve implemented crisis intervention training for law enforcement officers, paired social workers with deputies on patrol, and brought together mental health providers and law enforcement to address behavioral health needs in the criminal justice system. And through a partnership with the Mallory Behavioral Health Center, we’ve been able to get individuals in crisis the treatment they need, helping to keep most of them out of jail. These initiatives are a great start, but more work needs to be done.
This legislative session, lawmakers are considering Assembly Bill 236, a bill that would ensure law enforcement officers have the tools they need to effectively address our state’s growing population with behavioral health needs. By redistributing resources within the justice system, this bill will help fund law enforcement initiatives that identify and treat individuals in crisis. Proactive responses such as this are the best way to address crime and make our communities safer.
The momentum for change in the capitol gives me hope that Nevada can and will choose a better way forward. I support commonsense criminal justice reform that seeks to safely lower our prison population and redirect taxpayer dollars to where they’re most effective – strong law enforcement, public safety, and more treatment for the vulnerable individuals in our community.
It’s time we do better for all Nevadans.
Ken Furlong is the sheriff of Carson City.