With the onset of the pandemic and related stresses — and even prior to the pandemic — mental
health has risen to be a top priority for many.
There’s been a number of discussions surrounding the criminal justice system’s response to those
who are struggling with mental illness. Michigan joined this conversation early on and just
recently took a major step toward adopting modern, more effective solutions to address mental
health issues in the state — specifically within the criminal justice system.
In September, I joined Sen. Stephanie Chang in introducing legislation to improve the state’s
response to such emergencies. The bills received bipartisan support from the Legislature and
were formally signed into law at the end of 2021.
The new laws create grants to assist local units of government with implementing alternative
methods to dealing with mental health emergencies, such as sending unarmed mental health
professionals to respond to behavioral health-related emergency calls. These people are highly
trained to respond to these kinds of medical issues and can provide the necessary and helpful
resources needed to deescalate the situation and provide effective care.
This creates a much broader scope of response efforts and allows our already overworked law
enforcement officers and mental health professionals to join hands and not only use resources
more efficiently, but also increase the likelihood of a safe, positive outcome for everyone
involved in the situation.
The new laws also help establish or expand programs that seek to keep people suffering from
mental health issues out of jail, and instead direct them to the care they need.
Nearly one in four people entering Michigan jails have a serious mental illness. Keeping people
with mental health challenges in jail is expensive and over time has proven to be quite
counterproductive. The goal is to encourage and help fund alternative response and treatment
options and will work to get people the appropriate care instead of just placing them in a cell.
These kinds of efforts are being used successfully across the country. Denver’s STAR program is
a pilot program that provides an individualized crisis response for individuals suffering from
mental illness. The pilot has shown promising results, with 748 emergency calls that did not
require police action or arrests. An estimated 61% of the people the program contacted were
experiencing mental illness.
In Orlando, the Community Response Team has seen major success responding to hundreds of
calls, some of which resulted in referrals to mental health institutions — situations were de-
escalated, and no arrests were made.
One of the things that continuously comes up during my discussions with local law enforcement
officers is the need to provide officers with more resources for when they find themselves in
situations with someone who is struggling with their mental health. Most officers are aware
when this kind of situation presents itself, though the nature of the interaction can quickly change
very drastically. Everyone wants to go home to their family at the end of the day and creating a
team between our dedicated officers and highly trained health professionals increases the
chances of that happening.
These new laws will change the way we respond to behavioral health emergencies in Michigan.
They acknowledge the overlap between criminal justice and mental health issues and take a
deliberate step toward finding a better solution.
Sen. Rick Outman, R-Six Lakes, represents the 33rd state Senate District, which includes Clare,
Gratiot, Isabella, Mecosta, and Montcalm counties.