County forms committee to address justice reform

Chuck Wickenhofer
Rob Johnson, director of the Lake Region Law Enforcement Center, presented telling statistics and a plan to gather data on inmates in need of treatment at the local jail.

Treatment options for inmates with drug and/or mental health issues has been discussed locally and statewide for some time, and director Rob Johnson of the Lake Region Law Enforcement Center recently addressed the Ramsey County Commission about what he’d like to see moving forward.

Johnson presented several statistics that illustrated the problem nationwide.

“Today, there are 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States. While we have five percent of the world’s population, we have nearly 25 percent of the world’s prisoners,” Johnson said. “One of the biggest contributing factors to this is mental illness. There are three times as many people with serious mental illness incarcerated in the United States than in hospitals.”

While it’s well documented that the US incarcerates more prisoners than any other country, cities, towns and counties across the nation have struggled as to how to handle criminal justice issues on a local level.

In that pursuit, Johnson said that he and social services director Rhonda Allery plan to begin gathering data on inmates in order to determine what issues are most pressing at the local jail.

That data gathering mission should also help the county convince state legislators that there is indeed a drug and mental health treatment issue that the county continues to struggle with.

Commissioner Ed Brown agreed that such data will be crucial moving forward.

“We need state help. And the best way to do that is to get our legislators educated, get the data that we’re working on in front of them,” Brown said.

Brown also worried about the lack of qualified counselors in the state.

That’s been an issue in the past, as North Dakota’s strict guidelines may act as a barrier to bringing in counselors.

Johnson acknowledged the problem while suggesting that inmates with mental health or addiction issues may be able to see a professional remotely. The local VA clinic, for example, operates a tele-med system in which patients can see doctors who aren’t on site.

Johnson and Allery both predict that it’s realistic to expect enough data to generate some kind of report by the end of the year, because  data is gathered in real time as inmate evaluations are completed electronically.

The commission ultimately decided to form a committee to discuss solutions further. Commissioner Lucas Wakefield proposed that the committee include Johnson, Allery, a representative from the commission, as well as a rep from the other four counties that are part of the LEC’s decision-making body.

That committee was approved, and Commissioner Adam Leiphon was named as Ramsey County’s representative. The committee is tentatively scheduled to conduct its initial meeting on Aug. 1, giving other counties time to select representatives.

Whatever the outcome, the county expects solutions to be a long time coming due to financial concerns and other complexities.

“It’s going to take us awhile to get there,” Leiphon said.