NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – It’s more than a year since the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office opened a Behavioral Care Center in an effort to address mental health concerns in the criminal justice system.

“We were learning and watching for years and years how the needs of the individual coming to jail had changed dramatically in the last 25 years, where addictions was a focus for years, but mental health really became and still is a vital part of what happens because our country doesn’t really have an outlet for people who are in need from a mental health crisis standpoint and so law enforcement is brought into that,” said Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall. “Unfortunately, the criminal justice system has become the de facto mental health system.”

While the new downtown detention center was being built, they used some of those funds to build a Behavioral Care Center adjacent to it as an alternative to jail for mentally ill arrestees. The 60-bed center accommodates both men and women.

“I took money that was dedicated to building 60 more jail beds and used that. These beds cost half as much as the 60 beds would have been if you’d have built it into the jail that we’re building because of the, quite frankly, the security nature of jail bed is very expensive to build,” said Hall, adding that the correctional staff was moved over to the roles of behavioral care technicians, and 84 of them applied for 18 openings. “The only difference to me in the cost, so that you can really quantify would be the type of care the individuals getting in this facility. Obviously, it’s through the Mental Health Co-Op. But it’s a regular full-time mental health treatment program.”

The sheriff said when someone arrives at the jail, they’re first seen by a mental health clinician. If their acuity of mental health qualifies, meaning that they’re not harming themselves or others at the time and that they need treatment, the individual will then be reviewed every morning with the district attorney and the public defender to see if it’s appropriate for them to move right out of the booking room and directly in the hands of mental health, therefore foregoing their entire criminal justice process.

Sheriff Hall said the District Attorneys’ office is one of several stakeholders in the process.

“They’ve [DA’s office] been helping us on cases where maybe brothers living together and one brother gets off his medication and may have torn up something in the house and the brother who’s fearful may call the police. That individual is oftentimes brought to the jail system,” Hall said. “In lieu of that, we now offer them to go in the hands of mental health and the DA’s office reaches out to the victim to make sure they’re okay with it.”

During the last 3 months of 2021, they had 105 admissions and 87 discharges meaning those people completed a roughly 30-day mental health program. The workers in the BCC are dressed like health care professionals, and those receiving treatments are referred to as ‘clients’ instead of inmates. The sheriff said they see a variety of mental health disorders, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and severe anxiety.

“What I understand of anxiety, the worst thing you could do was put an individual in a cell with 44 other people, has limited lighting, and in a chaotic environment, the way jails are and asked to reduce anxiety,” said Hall. “A lot of these folks are dually diagnosed, they’ve been self-medicating with alcohol and drugs because that makes them feel better. And you need to get that out of their system to then better understand what the real needs are. And it’s almost alarming what was going on in our community.”

The sheriff says about 12% of them have been re-arrested.

“It’s important to know that 80% of people who go to jail with a mental health disorder and don’t receive mental health, go back to jail. So we’re at 12%, compared to 80, we are really, really proud of that,” Hall said. “And if they do get re-arrested and brought back in, they’re not ineligible, we bring them right back in the hands of mental health and try our best to get back to helping them to the individual get on their feet.”

When people complete the treatment and counseling, charges are then dismissed and individuals are sent with a 30 day supply of medication and follow-up counseling.

“I’ve said many times that 30% or so of the people who are in jails, and prisons in our country don’t belong there. They belong in a mental health system, and in other countries that 30% would not be in your incarceration rates, which would mean we would fit much more consistent with other countries,” Hall said. “And so all of the reforms, I mean, there’s bail reform, there are other types of things that are going on. But the single most important one to me is that we address the issue that people who are ill are being brought to the system, and they need to be handed off into the world of mental health.”

Read more about the BCC HERE.