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Intervention Instead of Incarceration

Posted by: Michelle Hillman on 3/25/2012
Framingham police officers and the manager of a group home were struggling with how to get through to a troubled teen whose disruptive behavior resulted in four 911 calls in two months.

Then, during a regular meeting where stakeholders involved with the department’s Jail Diversion Program discuss challenging cases, one of the officers asked the group home manager if the individual could come into the station. A few moments later the two parties – offender and officers – had a sit down.

That was all it took for the 911 calls to stop.

It was an unprecedented talk that wouldn’t have taken place in Massachusetts 10 years ago. In 2002, with Foundation support, the Framingham Police Department and the Framingham-based human services agency, Advocates, Inc., launched the first Jail Diversion Program in the state. The program, which diverts low-level offenders who suffer from a mental illness from being arrested, now serves as a model for other police departments across the state.

“It had never been done before,” said Sarah Abbott, director of the Jail Diversion Program at Advocates.
Sarah Abbott
Once it was clear the Framingham program was keeping people with mental illness out of jail and hospital emergency rooms and instead referring them to treatment, other departments expressed interest in replicating the program.

“People have recognized for many years that the police are often the first to encounter people in crisis,” said Abbott.

Advocates recently partnered with the Marlborough Police Department to create a Jail Diversion Program with the help of a three-year, $201,828 grant from the Foundation.

Last year Marlborough Police recorded 365 cases that were referred to the Jail Diversion Program. Seventy-five percent of those cases were diverted from arrest to community-based mental health services.

“For starters, they’re not getting involved in the criminal justice system for low-level minor offenses,” she said.

Fifty-one people were diverted from the Marlborough Hospital emergency room and were instead evaluated in the community by a clinician. Of all the cases, 6 percent involved repeat offenders. In each instance, the individual received a referral to treatment services.

The program received 112 calls from community groups in need of support services for victims of crimes and mental health and substance abuse resources. Advocates and the Marlborough Police Department also found, through the Jail Diversion Program, that there was an increased need for intervention among the homeless and elderly.

The program works best when police are willing participants and clinicians are an integral part of the department, said Abbott. Abbott said a handful of other departments in the state have based Jail Diversion Programs on Framingham’s model, including the Watertown Police Department which launched its Jail Diversion Program in October based on the lessons learned in Framingham and Marlborough.
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