MICHIGAN — Kent County Sheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young is thrilled about a pair of bills — SB 637 and 638 — circulating through Lansing.
Earlier this year, the sheriff's department launched a mobile crisis unit aimed at helping people in mental health crises. However, the funding has been hard to come by, Sheriff LaJoye-Young said.
“Funding's the golden thing for everything,” said Sheriff LaJoye-Young during an interview with FOX 17 on Wednesday at their headquarters. “We have a ton of great ideas, and there’s been a ton of collaboration in Kent County about what should or could be done. But, it all hinges on: Do we have the funding to accomplish it?”
The bills, if signed into law, would provide that and help keep the mobile crisis unit going in Kent County, which Sheriff LaJoye-Young said has been effective so far.
“I’m excited because this has been a long-term need and not just in the Kent County community but communities all across Michigan,” Sheriff LaJoye-Young said. “Sometimes, there’s individuals who are in a crisis. They’re not well served to just drop them off at a E.R. and they’re also not well served to take to jail.
RELATED: Sen. Stabenow discusses expansion of mental health services in Kent County
The bills, authored by state senators Stephanie Chang (D–District 1/Detroit) and Rick Outman (R–District 33), would require community crisis responders or mental and behavioral health professionals to tend to emergencies where people are suffering a mental health crisis.
“We’ve seen over and over again situations where people have unfortunately called to seek help and ended up on a pipeline to jail or prison or unfortunately, sometimes, injured or potentially even killed,” said Senator Chang during a Zoom interview on Wednesday afternoon. “So, what these bills do is seek to change the whole paradigm so that instead when someone’s facing a mental call for emergency that we have a community crisis response where we can make sure that there are mental health professionals who are able to actually go and provide the necessary help.”
Senator Outman said in preparing the bills he spoke with the sheriffs in his district — Montcalm, Isabella, Mecosta, Clare and Gratiot counties — and they said that sometimes when law enforcement is at a scene, it can be viewed as a trigger and can escalate the situation.
“As I was talking to my local sheriffs through numerous meetings, it seems like one of the issues that was a recurring thing was mental health crisis that we have in our local jails,” said Senator Outman during a Zoom interview earlier last week. “They were telling me, as we investigated it, that a quarter of all inmates in Michigan’s jails have serious mental illness, and in the rural areas, it’s even higher. It's up to one third.”
RELATED: Mental Health America says adolescents, teens seeing highest rates of depression amid pandemic
So, the bill would provide, via a community crisis grant fund program, the financial support for his district and others to create jail diversion programs or behavioral health diversion programs that’ll help people receive mental health services instead of going behind bars.
“In our next fiscal year budget, we did already appropriate $5,000,000 to help support local efforts,” Senator Chang said. “We’re working on trying to get $15,000,000 more so that we can really really boost these efforts because like you mentioned there are so many models that are starting to emerge. They are doing well.”
Like the mobile crisis unit in Kent County, which Sheriff LaJoye-Young said has been effective.
On Oct. 21, the Senate passed the bills unanimously, Senator Outman said.
“It’s well liked. I mean, this was something that was needed. Everybody knew it. I haven’t talked to one sheriff who didn’t think that this was a good idea,” said Senator Outman. “Certainly our community mental health people have encouraged me to move forward with this legislation too.”
Next, the bill has to pass the House and then signed into the law.
Sheriff LaJoye-Young said people in law enforcement are “comforted” that there’s more activity happening in Lansing to help local agencies be more effective in the communities they serve.
“There’s not a law enforcement officer out here who doesn’t want to help whatever situation they’re called to,” said Sheriff LaJoye-Young. “You know you get called, a 911 call, it's usually somebody’s worst day. They’re calling you out to help and you really want to have the tools to do the right thing, not just make it OK for a minute.”
RELATED: Families look for more affordable mental health treatment options