Huffman said that they want to prioritize arresting fewer people in addition to reforming conditions for incarcerated individuals with a mental illness. These initiatives have also received bipartisan support. In Alamance County, which has been one of the leaders for the program in the state, a conservative sheriff and Democrat county commissioners have been able to work together to reform their system.
“We have done some pretty amazing things," Huffman said. “Alamance County is not one of the big, well-resourced counties.”
Yet Stepping Up is also part of a larger initiative involving 400 counties across the nation. The Council of State Governments Justice Center works with counties that have received federal grants, such as Alamance County with the SIM initiative. Risë Hanberg of the Justice Center said that Stepping Up’s data-driven initiative was incredibly important since this provides a starting point for the counties to understand the degree of need in their community. The Stepping Up website also lists questions that serve as a guideline for local leaders to track their progress.
“We have more people with mental illness in jails than we do in our hospitals, which says a lot about our policy making,” said Deby Dihoff, the acting executive director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness in North Carolina.
While Dihoff was glad that so many counties in North Carolina have signed onto the initiative, she felt that there is still a need to take the research and make it happen.
Dihoff said that in her collaboration with Stepping Up, she has worked to implement crisis intervention team training. This model has been effective in deescalating team situations and avoiding incarceration. 20 percent of all law enforcement agencies across the state have been educated in crisis intervention training, including in Orange County. She was also part of a prison advisory council with Huffman and others to help reform prison rules.
“The idea of this is to intervene at every step in the criminal justice system,” Dihoff said. “If they’re in jail, get them out of jail as soon as you can or get them decent treatment.”
Dihoff said that her work on the prison advisory council came after seeing news coverage of people with severe mental illnesses who died in prisons after inadequate treatment, including unnecessary solitary confinement and failure to meet other medical needs.
“People with mental illness deserve treatment and a life,” Dihoff said. “When families call because they’re having a crisis with their loved ones, they shouldn’t have their loved one hauled off to jail.”
Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood said that while the sheriff's office is still involved with Stepping Up and participates in meetings, they have been able to exceed the goals outlined by the program. Along with local government officials, he created a plan for a better intake form and worked to ensure that a psychiatrist was available to speak to inmates.
“If the reason they are there is a direct result of their illness, we need to get them out,” Blackwood said. “There’s no sense in running that person through the criminal justice system.”