Applauding Indy’s altered vision for justice
In Indianapolis, it’s no longer a crime to be addicted or mentally ill.
Granted, it was not actually a crime to be mentally ill in Indianapolis before the city opened the Assessment and Intervention Center in December, but, for many people with addictions and mental illness, it might as well have been. Even though their behaviors were dictated more by mental illness than ill intent, in a city with few resources to respond to their needs, people who required treatment more than punishment too often found themselves incarcerated.
In fact, a few years ago, a local news outlet ran the headline: “Marion County Sherriff runs the largest mental illness facility in Indianapolis: the jail.” At that time, it was estimated that 40 percent of inmates in the Marion County Jail could be classified as needing psychiatric interventions. And, while I imagine the jail staff did their best to respond to the needs of inmates with behavioral health challenges, it’s unlikely that they had the training, programs or resources to address mental health needs.
Thanks to the City’s criminal justice reform efforts – cast in concrete as the Assessment and Intervention Center – now they do.
All across the nation, forward-thinking cities and states are considering the often-complex causes of crime rather than simply punishing those who commit them. They are acknowledging that people with mental illness and addiction need treatment not incarceration, and that providing that treatment will improve outcomes and reduce prison populations.
I have seen firsthand the impact of this kind of thinking with a different population: young people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. So often in the past, some sort of negative behaviors would plunge youth with disabilities into a justice system with limited ability to accommodate their needs.
Recognizing this, about five years ago the Indiana Department of Child Services asked Damar Services to provide temporary housing, assessment and transition for children and youth with intellectual and developmental disabilities who had found themselves in traumatic situations. Today, our Stabilization, Assessment & Transition center gives new hope to young people who otherwise might have been locked up and forced into a trajectory of hopelessness.
Another embodiment of this more progressive thinking opened earlier this month, when a special unit of the new NeuroDiagnostic Institute and Advanced Treatment Center opened. Providing urgent services to adolescents with autism who are in need of immediate intervention to address behaviors that can’t be managed in the home, community or school, the unit will serve another population that too often has ended up in the justice system.
These kinds of steps reveal a new, more humane vision of our justice system. As this process continues, I think we will see another shift: governments seeking increased funding for more services for people who are mentally ill or have intellectual or developmentally disabilities. Wouldn’t it be great if our greatest challenge was deciding what to do with all of those empty prison wings.