JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It’s all about breaking the cycle and keeping people out of jail and cutting down on homelessness in Jacksonville — and saving taxpayers money at the same time. And a team of mental health and legal professionals believe they’re on the right track with a program that identifies and treats repeat offenders with severe mental illness and substance abuse problems.
Leaders of the Mental Health Offenders Program, or MHOP, say it costs $900 for each misdemeanor arrest in Duval County. They say that’s enough to put someone in housing for a month. This program targets people who’ve been arrested dozens of times, and organizers say, by keeping these offenders out of jail, it saves the taxpayers a lot of money.
The News4JAX I-TEAM went along with a psychiatrist and social worker from the Sulzbacher Center to visit James, a MHOP participant and military veteran, who had fallen on hard times, struggling with substance abuse and schizophrenia.
“I had problems with mental health,” he told us. “I had to go the hospital.”
James spent much of the past decade without a place to live and without appropriate treatment, which put him on a downward spiral that resulted in petty criminal charges again and again.
“What was that like?” we asked.
“Bad,” he said.
James told us he had been to jail at least 10 times on charges like trespassing and violation of probation.
“So, you weren’t trying to hurt anybody?” we asked.
“No,” he said.
James turned his life around when local mental health workers saw him as a prime candidate for the MHOP pilot program.
“So, initially, for the pilot, we created a list. So, on that list, we had about 220 names,” said Dr. Colleen Bell, the medical director at Sulzbacher Center.
Bell is the lead psychiatrist for the program that she helped create. Her team works with police, prosecutors, public defenders and judges to identify people who need mental health and drug treatment — not time behind bars
“We are targeting misdemeanor offenders, so people that have severe mental illness, as well as crimes like trespassing, the more nuisance crimes. People that we all agree don’t belong in jail, they’re not your career criminals, they’re not violent,” Bell explained. “We’ve been able to help individuals, one individual was in jail on average every 10 days.”
James went through MHOP and is now in aftercare. As part of that, he must continue to check in with the team, stay drug free and get his injectable medication to manage his conditions. The social workers are helping him get his social security, as well as his veteran’s benefits, and other welfare assistance.
“Do you feel like you’re on the right track?” we asked.
“Yes, I do. I hope I’m on the right track. I hope I get a job soon,” James said.
Another component of the Mental Health Offender Program is court. Magistrate Brooke Brady with the Fourth Judicial Circuit and another judge handle the MHOP participants.
“Hey, Magistrate Brady,” greeted Malik Davidson, another MHOP participant, during his Zoom call with the court.
“So, how’s everything going on your own? I hear you’re doing well,” she asked Davidson.
The I-TEAM spent time observing the court process. Brady was checking in with participants to make sure the rules of the program are being followed, that they aren’t involved in violent or sexual crimes, and that they are getting the help that they need.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Wilcox. How are you doing?” Brady asked Ross Wilcox, another MHOP participant. “I heard you were negative on your drug screen. That’s fantastic.”
Being able to observe the hearings allowed us to see the positive interactions and the relationships that are being built.
“We watched your hearing, you showed a lot of mercy,” we said to Brady.
“It’s a very difficult population. We strive for progress, not perfection,” she responded. “Many of these people have come such a long way already.”
Brady says this seems to work incredibly well at getting people off the streets and into stable housing, and cutting down on small crimes, as well as jail stays and hospital costs.
“What has been the greatest success story?” we asked.
“We had a gentleman in our pilot program. He was arrested I believe it was 97 times from 2017 until he came into our program,” Brady explained. “He was one of our first graduates of the program. He has not been rearrested. He’s gotten his benefits. He’s stable on medication.”
Jacksonville’s City Council allocated $600,000 for the project, and the state of Florida appropriated another $700,000 — that’s a total of $1.3 million to run the program for now. With this money, MHOP is expanding to 40 participants, but that’s still a small percentage of more than 200 people that authorities have identified as eligible.
Program leaders say that the cost is relatively low and that they help participants apply for benefits, which offset their living, rehabilitation and medical expenses. Some stay at the Sulzbacher Center while others stay at hotels, apartments or group homes.
The program started with 20 people whose arrests cost $362,000. Since entering MHOP, their bill was a much more manageable $12,000. It’s been life-changing for participants like Corey.
“Did you have a home?” we asked Corey.
“No, I didn’t have a home, no,” Corey said.
“Where’d you sleep?” we asked Corey.
“Really, I didn’t go to sleep but steps and different places,” Corey responded.
Leaders say Corey came into the program barely communicating, but he’s grown and now volunteers as a helping hand at the shelter.
“He (Corey) was in the jail. When we first met him, he wasn’t really able to put a sentence together, not making a lot of sense, not really engaged with the team. But you know, over time we formed those relationships,” said Bell. “You know, to see somebody that everybody else has sort of given up on and said, ‘Well, they’re not going to be able to make it work, in assisted living or in their own apartment’ — we’re the safety net of the safety net, and we’re going to come in, and we’re going to say, ‘No, this person deserves that chance.’ And to work with somebody like Corey and to see him blossom in the program, to see him want to give back and wants to be here volunteering.”
While advocates hope the program continues to grow, not every participant has a success story. Some do defect from the rules and do get removed from the program. Others decide to leave on their own. But overall, organizers say it’s working incredibly well.
To learn more about the Mental Health Offender Program in Duval County, click here. To donate or volunteer, you can contact Sulzbacher Center online at sulzbacherjax.org or by calling 904-359-0457.