Jacksonville, Florida, is the largest city in the state, with a population of 954,614. The city also has one of the largest crime rates in the country.
Mental Health Offenders Program (MHOP) revealed that it costs around $900 per misdemeanor arrest in Duval County, an amount that is sufficient to provide monthly housing for someone. MHOP aims to help individuals who have been arrested many times by placing offenders out of jail, to save taxpayer money, and provide adequate help for those in need of care.
The News4JAX I-TEAM, a television station reporting from Jacksonville, visited a military veteran MHOP participant named James struggling with schizophrenia and substance abuse. "I had problems with mental health," shared James. "I had to go the hospital."
He wandered around for the past decade without the necessary treatment or a safe place to live. These unfortunate living situations all contributed to recurrent minor criminal charges.
When asked about how his life was before, he said it was bad. James was put to jail approximately 10 times for minor charges like trespassing or violating probation. Everything changed once a local mental health worker targeted James for the MHOP pilot program.
"So, initially, for the pilot, we created a list. So, on that list, we had about 220 names," shared the medical director at Jacksonville's Sulzbacher Center Colleen Bell, M.D.
Sulzbacher Center supplies those in need with housing, meals, and hope. Bell, the lead psychiatrist for the MHOP, collaborates with local police, public defenders, judges, and prosecutors to make sure those in need of mental health services and drug treatments are given necessary help — instead of being stuck in jail, worsening their mental health.
"We are targeting misdemeanor offenders, so people that have a 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," continued Bell. "We’ve been able to help individuals; one individual was in jail on average every 10 days."
After James went through MHOP, he was put in aftercare, where he gets check-ins and gets to stay away from drugs.
He also gets medication injected to control his symptoms and to live a healthier life. The program’s social workers are helping him attain a social security number, along with veteran’s benefits and welfare aid to provide an adequate living situation. James revealed that he wants to get a job soon and continue living healthily.
Does MHOP provide any other types of service?
MHOP also offers court services. Magistrate Brooke Brady with the Fourth Judicial Circuit and another judge take care of MHOP participants when needed. Magistrates refer to volunteers who are trained to hear decisions in court cases.
When the I-TEAM went to observe a court case process, they saw Brady interacting with participants to ensure all rules were adhered to and that individuals were not linked with sexual or violent crimes. "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 concluded: "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. 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."
How much did the program cost to create?
Jacksonville’s City Council was provided $600,000 to create the program, and Florida issued $700,000, making a total of $1.3 million to administer MHOP. The program is expanding to provide services for 40 participants with the given money, although over 200 individuals have been found eligible. Participants are given opportunities to apply for benefits that can aid them in housing, medical, and rehabilitation costs when needed.
Some participants live at the Sulzbacher Center, while others reside in hotels, group homes, or apartments. MHOP began with 20 individuals with an accumulated arrest cost of $362,000. After joining the program, their bill significantly diminished to $12,000. Corey, another participant in the program, said MHOP changed his life for the better. Before joining, he didn’t have a home and had to go from one place to another to find somewhere to rest. Corey hardly communicated when he first entered MHOP but is now thriving and growing.
"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."
Although not every participant is growing and thriving yet, the program has hope to continue providing the necessary help and services to ensure everyone has a safe place to reside in.