Skip to content

‘They Don’t Need to Be Locked in a Cell’

How do you help individuals who repeatedly cycle through their community’s jails, ERs, and shelters? Three localities are using the concept of Data-Driven Justice to identify ‘frequent users’ of their services and give them the customized help they need.

Arnold A decorative icon

Police Officer Brad Futak walks underneath a highway overpass in Long Beach, California, amid a makeshift camp of tents and shopping carts. He’s on the lookout for specific individuals — but unlike most people in his line of work, he doesn’t have a name, a description, or any sort of address to go on.

He does, however, have a purpose: He’s looking for members of the homeless population who want help and could benefit from a range of city services available to them.

“If a homeless person is out here and they can’t get back on their feet themselves, then I’m out here to connect them with the right programs,” says Futak, a member of the Long Beach Police Department’s Quality of Life unit.

“Everybody’s different,” he says. “Some people are in bad luck. Some people do have an addiction. Some people do have a mental illness. Every situation is different.”

And every situation needs customized attention. That’s why Long Beach is one of three pilot sites across the United States working to sync data from all its services — criminal justice, health, and social services — into one central database to better understand who has been seeking help and give them the attention they need.

That way, when police respond to an incident involving a person who is homeless or mentally ill, they can easily access that data, and the default won’t be to place the person in handcuffs and haul them off to the local jail.

For some individuals, the jail routine is commonplace. Referred to as “frequent users,” these men and women cycle through the criminal justice system dozens of times, often at great expense to the specific jurisdiction involved. In Johnson County, Iowa — another one of the pilot sites — police officials over a four-year period calculated the taxpayer cost for four people who frequently used emergency services — and it was staggering.

“They were using over $140,000 per person per year in services, but at the end of four years and $2.1 million, they were still homeless and still had substance abuse issues,” said David Schwindt of the Iowa City Police Department. Since the study ended in 2014, two of the four died on the streets, with substance abuse being a contributing factor.

Similar stories routinely unfold at jurisdictions across the United States, which is why Lynn Overmann began working on “Data-Driven Justice,” or DDJ — the concept behind the pilot programs. According to Overmann, who led the White House Data-Driven Justice initiative during the Obama administration, the goal is to increase the level of connectivity among social services, health care providers, and criminal justice professionals so that during an incident or potential arrest, everyone would be working with a better understanding of what factors are influencing the situation.

Long Beach police officer Brad Futak
Long Beach Police Officer Brad Futak talks with a homeless man sleeping under the Shoemaker Bridge in downtown Long Beach, California, on Dec. 11, 2013. (Jeff Gritchen/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

“Folks cycle in because they hit a moment of crisis, and their mental health has deteriorated, or maybe their housing situation has become unstable or they overdose on drugs,” says Overmann, now Vice President of Criminal Justice at Arnold Ventures. “And we’re really relying on our front-line responders to handle those crises effectively. So how do we make sure that people are safe in that moment of emergency response and then how do we do our best to leverage those systems to actually direct them to long-term treatment?”

In three different jurisdictions, those questions are being answered in a very coordinated way.

In Long Beach, the effect of using DDJ is seen when Officer Futak proactively visits a homeless encampment looking to offer assistance; he doesn’t go it alone but is instead accompanied by a clinician from the county’s Department of Health, trained in identifying the issues that may be affecting a person’s mental or physical well-being. Futak also has well-established contacts at the Long Beach Multi-Service Center, which offers a variety of social and outreach services to the homeless population. And if a situation arises where a person represents a danger to himself or someone else, then the police department calls on its Mental Health Evaluation Team.

“There is no wrong door,” says Tracy Colunga of the City of Long Beach. “We meet you as first responder or street outreach, we are offering you services. If we see you in the jail system, we have the clinician there; we are offering you services. If we see you in the courtroom, we can provide diversionary services.”

The coordinated system means service providers “are all seeing this individual as a person and we are not bifurcating our approach for them,” Colunga says.

Still, there are times when incarceration is the end result of the incident, but, even then, a trained evaluator is there in Long Beach looking to provide a deeper understanding of what intervention techniques may prove most effective.

“A lot of these individuals, given their trauma history, may illustrate a lot of symptoms along their lifetime where they’ve never been diagnosed,” says Melissa Mojica, a clinical therapist with the Long Beach Jail. “And maybe mental health or clinical services would be of great help to them so that they can learn self-regulating skills and also use the support system that would really help them meet their long- and short-term goals.”

Officials in Middlesex County, Massachusetts — the third pilot site — have started gathering data from law enforcement teams in the community and integrating it with data from the jail. Their next step is to work with the health care sector — hospitals, community centers, and public and mental health departments — to weave in that piece of the story.

But they know that the data portion of the project — and identifying the community’s frequent users — is just the beginning.

“Once you know who they are, you have to figure out what you do to help them,” says Sonya Khan of the Middlesex Sheriff’s Office. “Where are you diverting them to? I think the hard work comes later when you have to figure out what those programs and services look like.”

One thing that’s clear is that continuing the cycle of putting frequent users into jail is not the answer.

“We have really good programs within the jail and within the house of correction,” Peter Koutoujian, Sheriff of Middlesex County, says. “But these programs aren’t designed to extend beyond our prison walls. I’m proud of the programs we run at the Middlesex Sheriff’s Office, but you shouldn’t have to come to jail to receive good programming.

“The types of services and treatment that this population needs are long-term. They need outpatient treatment and a support system found in medical settings, not jail settings. You’re throwing a lot of money at a solution that is not addressing the underlying issue or improving health outcomes.”

As officials in Middlesex have been working on the DDJ project, they’ve started to realize that they have a lot of short-term services for frequent utilizers that build on a crisis moment, but there isn’t support on the back end to help them in the long term. “Even being able to identify that and demonstrate that there is a need is a step forward,” says Sonya Khan of the Middlesex Sheriff’s Office. “The big work is starting to build that up and find those resources.”

11%
The proportion of U.S. inmates who received treatment for a substance abuse or addiction, according to a 2010 nationwide study. That’s compared to the nearly 65 percent of all U.S. inmates who met the criteria for substance abuse or addiction disorders.
$13.7m
The cost to taxpayers in Miami-Dade County, Florida, for 97 people who spent a total of 39,000 days in either jail, emergency rooms, state hospitals, or psychiatric facilities over a four-year period, according to a 2016 release from the White House.
20%
The proportion of individuals identified as chronically homeless in Philadelphia who account for 60 percent, or $12 million, of the total annual public costs for corrections, behavioral health, and homeless services in the city, according to a 2010 study.
-40%
The reduction in jail time over a two-year period for a group of “frequent users” in New York after being connected to permanent supportive housing, which included access to behavioral and physical health services, according to a 2014 Columbia University study.