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  • Dozens of officials visit Pima County to learn about justice reform, assisting people with mental-health issues

     Jan Lesher at justice reform conference
    County Administrator Jan Lesher welcomes visitors to the conference at the Abrams
    Public Health Center.
    Pima County burnished its reputation as a national leader in justice reform this week when the County’s Justice Services Department hosted elected officials and experts from around the country for a two-day conference to share ideas about how to keep people with mental-health issues out of the criminal justice system.

    The conference took place mostly in and around the Abrams Public Health Center, 3950 S. Country Club Road, May 25 and 26. Justice Services led the event’s seminars, which focused on everything from law-enforcement involvement with mental-health services to data sharing, best practices, peer support for patients, and an overview of the Behavioral Health Department’s Inmate Navigation, Enrollment, Support and Treatment (INVEST) program.

    Twenty-four elected, judicial and health-care leaders from eight jurisdictions across the country attended the conference. They heard from 20 Pima County speakers who are involved in local justice and health-care systems.

    The two-day conference was attended by 24 elected, health-care and judicial leaders
    from across the country.
    County Administrator Jan Lesher welcomed the visitors, inviting them to learn from the County’s experiences and share their expertise as well.

    “We’re certainly excited to host all of you and to learn so much more about what other communities are doing because, in the final analysis, we are all dealing with the same problems,” Lesher told attendees at an opening-day breakfast. 

    “In our community, we have a history of activities that are related to mental-health incidents and episodes. It’s what really brought our community together in so many ways,” Lesher said. “Those have been difficult times for our community, but as a result we created the Crisis Response Center and other ways to deal with people who need help.”

    One of the highlights of the conference was a tour of the nearby Crisis Response Center, or CRC, 2802 E. District St. The CRC is a 24/7 facility where local law-enforcement agencies can take individuals who are experiencing mental-health crises. The CRC serves individuals of all ages.

    “The CRC really is one of the best facilities of its kind in the country,” said Kate Vesely, director of the Justice Services Department. “It’s a model for the rest of the nation, so we are happy to show it off.

    ”In addition, Pima County as a whole is a leader in criminal justice reform thanks to the involvement of our local law-enforcement community. They’ve really bought in to the reform culture, which is not so common in some places.”

    Julie Morgas Baca, the manager of Bernalillo County, N.M., said she attended the conference because her county is planning to build a facility like the CRC.

    “We hope to break ground in the early fall of this year on a crisis triage center. It’s a partnership between the University of New Mexico Hospital and Bernalillo County,” Baca said. “I’m hoping to learn from the experiences of other counties so that we don’t repeat some of those same mistakes. We’re also here to share what we are doing as well.

    “Pima County has already done a lot and I’m very interested in seeing the jail. I’d love to see the services that are being implemented within the jail” regarding mental health, Baca added.

    Robert Fox, a courts coordinator from Newton County, Ga., said he came to the conference to learn how to possibly create a robust justice system that includes care for those suffering from mental illness.

    “My understanding is that the CRC is the best pre-arrest crisis diversion center in the country, and I desperately want one for our community,” Fox said. “I was really eager to see it and learn what is happening here.

    “For us in Newton County, there are tons of stakeholders who are interested in having a CRC, but the map to get there is unclear. So, understanding where Pima County started and how they got from Point A to what we see now, I think, will help me and our commissioner go back and explain to our funders and legislators how to get that ball rolling.” 

    Connie Russell, a third-term supervisor from Eau Claire County, Wis., said she attended the conference to learn about reducing jail populations and to network with counterparts from other parts of the country.

    “My main purpose was to learn more about alternatives to incarcerating people. We don’t want to be in a situation where we are forced to enlarge our jail facility,” Russell said. “This conference seemed like a good opportunity to learn more about how to deal with those issues.

    “It’s also an opportunity to network and find counterparts from other parts of the country or other parts of my state who are dealing with the same problems. I have the names of people now that I am going to call for more information.”

    The conference, officially called the County Justice Peer Learning Network Peer Exchange, was put on by the National Association of Counties, or NACo. Funding for the event was provided by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which supports justice-reform initiatives around the country, including in Pima County.
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