COUDERSPORT — Ongoing criminal justice reforms and efforts were a focus of discussions at Thursday’s Potter County commissioners meeting.

Jessica Giebel, Potter County Criminal Justice resource coordinator and Bryonna Swede-Mann, Potter County Human Services mental health specialist, visited the meeting to present information on two initiatives the county has pledged to support.

“We recognize that tough justice just isn’t working for a lot of these people. Recidivism is on the rise,” Giebel said. “This will help us deliver better results — save money, identify people frequently in contact with the criminal justice system, and deal with issues that people are having — addiction, mental illness, co-occurring disorders, employability, and other things barring them from being productive citizens.”

The Stepping Up Initiative is a national move to reduce the number of incarcerated individuals who suffer from mental health issues.

According to data released through the initiative, prevalence rates of serious mental illnesses are three to six times higher in incarcerated populations than within the general public. County jails also spend two to three times more on adults with mental illnesses that require interventions compared to individuals without those issues. Offenders with underlying mental health issues are much more likely to re-offend and wind up back in jail within a short period of time.

The Potter County Criminal Justice Advisory Board (CJAB) has developed a DUI Treatment Court, Drug Treatment Court and a pilot Pre-Trial Diversion Program to help people stay out of jail by offering substance use disorder treatment and related services. Nearly 75 percent of adults with serious mental illnesses in jail have co-occurring substance use disorders.

The Data-Driven Justice Initiative is also being implemented. This national initiative has bipartisan support and is a move to develop more efficient strategies that produce better outcomes through careful data collection and data sharing between counties across the country.

“As CJAB has recognized, the effective collection and analysis of data can guide decision-making for both the implementation of criminal justice, and the wise use of the county’s limited financial resources,” Giebel said. “This plan will require consistent communication and collaboration to meet the DDJ objectives.”

According to DDJ Initiative research, more than 11 million people move through 3,100 local jails in the U.S. each year. Many are incarcerated on low-level, non-violent misdemeanors. The average length of stay is 23 days, and 95 percent of the cases are resolved at the local level with no prison sentence. On any given day, more than 450,000 people are held in jail before trial, without being convicted of a crime.

Two populations will be the focus of DDJ efforts. Those known as “frequent utilizers,” who are often individuals with mental illness, substance abuse and health problems who repeatedly cycle through jails, hospital emergency rooms, shelters and other public welfare services. The second group are the individuals being held before trial, many of which are in jail because they cannot afford bail rather than that they are a risk to the community or a flight risk.

“These are huge changes to the way justice has been administered for a long, long time,” said Commissioner Paul Heimel. “We wouldn’t be here without a number of people on the CJAB board — Judge (Stephen) Minor, Judge (John) Leete, (District Attorney) Andy Watson and others. They did some bold things and took some big steps to get the county this far.”

The CJAB board, which is comprised of forty people of various backgrounds — from the county’s president and senior judges to members of local police forces, school officials, human services employees, pastors, charitable organization members and county officials — recently developed a strategic plan to address gaps in the county’s criminal justice system and identify goals and objectives for the coming year.

The next meeting of the Potter County commissioners will be held at 11 a.m. on Sept. 13 at the Gunzburger Building in Coudersport.


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