Decriminalizing Mental Illness in Yavapai County

by Sheila Polk, Yavapai County Attorney

Twenty-nine-year-old Travis (not his real name) began showing signs of mental illness as a teenager. His parents found treatment for him in Phoenix, where he qualified for AHCCCS health care. With appropriate medications and counseling, Travis was stable. A few years ago, Travis moved to Prescott Valley, found a job and housing with a roommate. 

One day, Travis contacted his pharmacy to have his prescription refilled. Travis was shocked when he learned the prescription would cost him $400. The helpful pharmacist told Travis he would contact his insurance. Travis himself took steps to clear up the confusion, but, meanwhile, ran out of his medicine. Within a couple of days without medication, Travis’s mental health began to decompensate. 

With each passing day, Travis grew more dysfunctional and his ability to straighten out his prescription deteriorated. During a disagreement with his roommate, Travis grew violent and broke the coffee table. His frightened roommate called 911. When law enforcement officers arrived at the home, they arrested Travis on charges of assault and transported him to the Yavapai County jail.

There was a time, not long ago, when Travis would have found himself trapped in the criminal justice system, facing charges and a criminal record. Thankfully, things have changed. Beginning in 2016, Yavapai County has taken the lead in decriminalizing mental illness.

Travis is in a safe place today. After his arrest, his mother contacted the jail, where medical staff quickly acquired Travis’s medications so that Travis could resume his treatment. Within five days, Travis exhibited a complete turnaround. 

My office, the office that prosecutes criminal offenses after an arrest is made, was contacted. After speaking to Travis’s mom and his roommate, who expressed the desire to drop charges, all charges were dismissed, and Travis was released. Jail staff helped Travis find housing, enroll in vocational rehab and find a job. I am happy to report that Travis has remained crime-free and productive since this episode. 

When mental illness intersects with conduct that hurts others, law enforcement is called to the scene. Historically, law enforcement had only two options — arrest the individual or take him to the emergency room for medical clearance prior to an arrest. 

Beginning about four years ago, criminal justice partners in Yavapai County said we can do better. 

Today, we have emerged as the most progressive county in our state in decriminalizing mental illness. Police officers across our county receive crisis intervention training and mental health first aid to learn about the causes, effects and treatment of mental illness, and de-escalation skills to keep patients out of jail. Reach Out is our visionary program that screens individuals brought to jail to identify mental illness and release them to behavioral health services under court supervision.

Mobile Crisis Teams 

In 2016, Spectrum Healthcare created mobile crisis teams in Yavapai County. Each team consists of behavioral health professionals who respond to the scene of an encounter — frequently within minutes — between a police officer and a person exhibiting signs of mental illness, such as psychosis, substance abuse, skipping medications or family conflict. Often, the officer can leave the scene in the hands of the professionals and return to patrol.

The intervention and success of these mobile crisis teams in diverting individuals away from the criminal justice system is enormous. Approximately 70% of these encounters are stabilized in the community while the remainder are connected to services. 

The West Yavapai Guidance Clinic’s Crisis Stabilization Unit opened its doors in Prescott Valley in 2017, providing another option to the officer. At the unit, patients are stabilized, treated and connected to more permanent treatment.

The results to date are remarkable. Since its inception, 1,541 potential arrests have been diverted and 3,289 emergency room visits have been avoided. The savings to the County in jail incarceration costs is more than $3.7 million.

There is nothing criminal about being diagnosed with mental illness. Keeping our communities safe by steering persons with mental illness away from jails and to the psychiatric care they need has been embraced in Yavapai County. For more information, visit: www.justicementalhealth.com/collaborative-efforts.

The prevalence of mental illness in United States jails ranges between 25% and 40% of jail inmates.

Of these, 60–80% have co-occuring substance use disorders.

Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics