New Diversion Program for People Charged with Minor Crimes to Launch in Gillette

Program would connect persons with mental illnesses to treatment resources

Wyoming Supreme Court Chief Justice Kate M. Fox spoke Tuesday at the Mental Health and Vulnerable Adults Task Force meeting about the pilot diversion program launching in Gillette (Courtesy photo via the Wyoming Legislature YouTube channel)

By Shen Wu Tan

Special to the Wyoming Truth

State officials plan to introduce a program that will direct individuals with mental health conditions who commit minor criminal offenses to treatment resources next year.

The Gillette-based program is for individuals charged with nonviolent misdemeanors and who suffer from a mental illness such as schizophrenia and depression that can be treated in the short term with medication, Wyoming Supreme Court Chief Justice Kate M. Fox told a state legislature task force Tuesday.

“People with mental illnesses, some of them need to be in jail if they’ve committed a violent felony, some of them don’t,” Fox said to the Mental Health and Vulnerable Adults Task Force. “Some of them would be much better off getting treatment and hopefully not returning to jail.”

The pilot diversion program, called the Three Branch Project, would redirect low-risk individuals from the judicial system by training law enforcement and EMTs to divert them to a contracted treatment provider before charges are brought or temporarily hold charges for behavioral treatment rather than continue through the judicial system.

Diversion could help relieve pressure in the judicial system and the state hospital, both of which are experiencing case backlogs, according to Fox.

The chief justice noted that sometimes a person charged with a misdemeanor, who might not be fit to stand trial, needs to undergo a competency evaluation at the state hospital. However, the person could end up waiting months in jail for an evaluation and serve even more time waiting behind bars than the crime’s sentence length warrants.

And keeping someone in jail for longer than necessary costs the Wyoming taxpayers about $110 to $150 a day, Fox said.

“So, this person is in the jail, costing money, and nothing is being accomplished for anybody,” she said. “What we’re doing now is the least effective and most expensive approach…. Whatever we do can only be an improvement.”

Currently, some law enforcement agents, including those in Gillette, are participating in crisis intervention training, a helpful tool for diversion.

Fox said she would like the pilot program to be up and running in the first quarter of 2024. A definitive timeline has not been set, but the program should be in place sometime next year. While the program will be launched in Campbell County, it could help determine whether and how to  implement the diversion model on a statewide level.

During the meeting, task force member Sen. Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) asked about medications for diversion program participants. Fox said injectable medications can last for weeks, but she was not able to identify a funding source for such medication. 

“There are questions, big ones, that we still need to figure out,” she acknowledged.

Andi Summerville, executive director of Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Centers, expressed her support for the diversion program during public comments at the meeting. However, she is concerned about funding.

“I think we all have to remember that there’s a finite amount of money for the community mental health centers, and one of those items that comes up, even in today’s conversation, is those injectable medications,” Summerville said. “They are incredibly effective. However, they are incredibly expensive. You know, you can average $1,200 to $1,500 a month for an injectable medication. We also have some hoops that we have to jump through a lot of times to be able to use those injectable medications.”

The pilot program will measure public safety outcomes, including costs compared to traditional criminal justice expenses, time spent in jail, arrest data and recidivism rates.

Wyoming Department of Health Director Stefan Johansson said the goals of a diversion program are to reduce the volume and backlog of issues in court and law enforcement systems, to decrease the burden and volume of those waiting to get into the state hospital and to ensure a more effective and humane way to help people in need.

“I do think this pilot will move us towards accomplishing those goals,” he said. “I really think we’re on the right track.”

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