Amanda Weisbrod

For some inmates of Union County Jail, the chances of breaking free from the vicious legal and justice system cycle grow exponentially with the help of the Center for Human Development’s jail diversion program.

Taylor Brown, jail diversion team lead, said the program was established in 2016 to give inmates with behavioral health problems access to community services, as well as to keep people with mental illness who are at risk of incarceration out of jail in the first place. Last quarter, the team reports working with 48 of these individuals, which is the largest number they’ve served since the program’s beginning.

“Our main goal is to get involved with individuals who have mental illnesses and end up stuck in the spiral of the justice system,” she said. “We start providing intensive services that (the inmates) may not have known were available to hopefully reduce recidivism (the chance of reincarceration).”

Brown works with three other CHD employees on the jail diversion team: Kory Escobar, employment and education specialist; Louise Larvik, nurse; and Troy Davis, case manager.

Together, they provide what Davis called “pre- and post-booking services” — such as individual therapy, group therapy, supported employment and education services, peer support, medicine management and more — to individuals in Union County who may be at risk for incarceration based on their mental illness, to current inmates with mental illness, and to recently released convicts who are trying to reintegrate into the community.

“We try to intervene before these individuals are sent to jail,” Davis said. “But we also provide services to inmates after lodging at the Union County Jail.”

As case manager, Davis assists former inmates with navigating health insurance, attending court hearings or parole meetings and applying to government programs so they can successfully stay out of jail.

“My role is to stabilize people to help them achieve the basics of living,” he said. “There are many, but limited, resources available to the community that people are often unaware of. In the interest of developing stabilization and independence, jail diversion helps connect people to those resources.”

Davis stressed the jail diversion program isn’t a “handout,” however.

“We’re connecting people to resources, not giving out free rides,” he said. “Our intent is to stabilize them so they can move forward independently in life.”

Aaron Grigg, mental health director at CHD, oversees the jail diversion program and coordinates with the sheriff’s office when needed. He said one of the “biggest barriers inmates face out of jail is finding employment.”

“For some, it’s hard to resist crime with no income,” Grigg said.

That’s where Escobar, supported employment and education specialist, comes in. Escobar not only helps inmates prepare for interviews, create resumes and find jobs suitable with their individual skill sets, but also focuses on getting inmates to complete their GED.

“Even with a simple part- time job, they get a confidence boost that’s really cool to see,” he said. “That’s the spark they need to become a productive member of the community.”

Brown recalls one success story in particular that inspires the jail diversion team to continue serving inmates with behavioral health issues.

“One graduate from jail diversion has been involved since 2016,” she said. “He completed parole, completed his mental health services and went on to become a peer mentor at the jail.”

Davis then chimed in with his experience working with this person.

“To know this individual came from a life of crime and addiction makes their turnaround unbelievable,” he said. “He decided to become successful in the community.”

While the official jail diversion program is fairly new, Grigg said CHD has a “long- standing” agreement with the county jail to intervene whenever an inmate with mental illness is in crisis.

“We have had a presence at the jail for a long time,” he said. “Our jail diversion program is part of what the state wants mental health programs in each county to do.”

In October 2018, the Behavioral Health Justice Reinvestment Steering Committee, composed of 28 officials from Oregon law enforcement, health care, government officials and more submitted a recommendation on policy for how to divert people with mental illness from the criminal justice system.

Their plan, titled the Behavioral Health Justice Reinvestment in Oregon, said “without access to effective community-based health care for substance addictions and mental illnesses, too many Oregonians wind up in crisis and then in emergency rooms or jail, leading to high costs and poor health and public safety outcomes.”

In Union County, Sheriff Boyd Rasmussen and the deputies managing the jail are happy to work alongside members of CHD to keep individuals in the community, not behind bars.

“The jail diversion program alleviates our jail capacity challenges by delivering mental health services in the field where they are most needed,” he wrote in a statement. “We fully support CHD with this program.”

Brown, who is focused on the therapy side of the jail diversion program, started hosting trauma groups in the jail at the beginning of the year to help incarcerated men deal with trauma and substance abuse issues in an open space. She said the women’s group will start in April.

“The goal of the groups is to bring awareness to topics they might not want to talk about,” Brown said. “These men have the idea they can’t look vulnerable, so they struggle with emotions.”

Brown said every inmate likely experiences some sort of trauma that may lead to mental health issues in some situations. Grigg agreed, stating he has never seen a situation of a criminal who has a drug and alcohol abuse history without an accompanying trauma history.

At its core, CHD’s jail diversion program helps the inmates of Union County work through their personal trauma through therapy sessions, case work and employment assistance in order to reintroduce them to the community as a productive and successful person.

“It’s not about teaching them that they’re victims — it’s about helping them take control of their situation,” Grigg said. “If people can heal, they can improve. We’re trying to provide healing for people so they don’t keep coming back.”