“It's a truism by now the criminal justice system, and jails in particular, are a dumping ground for people with substance abuse and mental health problems.”
– The Vera Instituteof Justice
Allen County operates no MCAT (mobile crisis assistance team) program, although 70% of its general operating budget is allocated to law enforcement and the courts. Faith in Indiana has asked Sheriff David Gladieux to dedicate $200,000 of his 2020 budget to seed a pilot jail diversion program, as an MCAT first step. And while the sheriff has expressed an interest in such a pilot, he's taken no concrete action, and the County Council says its hands are tied until it gets a departmental request.
What might an MCAT diversion program do? Give police a course of action other than jail in cases where drugs or mental health intervention would be a better solution. For instance, in 2017 when a local fast food restaurant called the police to remove a clearly delusional young, black man who was neither belligerent nor the cause of immediate danger to himself or others, just non-cooperative and refusing to leave, an MCAT team could have recommended a treatment alternative. Instead, he was arrested and remained in jail for months before his case was dismissed.
He could have avoided being skewed toward the social bromide of mass incarceration. In return, the county could have saved the money it cost to detain him.
Until that day, though Samson (not his real name) had stumbled, he was moving toward his goals of a secure place to live, job security and a clear path to college. Only wanting to finish eating and warm himself before braving the subzero cold on the street where he would spend the night, that day Samson became another victim of Indiana's jail expansion exercise in mass incarceration.
When I met Samson in 2013, he'd recently become homeless. Diagnosed as schizophrenic and bipolar, he was on medication and struggling in high school. We gave him a place to stay and friendship. Throughout his junior and senior years, all he could talk about was graduating and going to college. In 2015, he succeeded and was admitted to a local college. His tenure was short-lived, and his housing at the school ended. Samson wasn't properly prepared for the self-discipline college life required.
For a while he was at the Rescue Mission, working through a temp agency. We found him an apartment and for a while his life seemed to be spiraling upward. But it went off the tracks when work became scarce, he lost his home and medical insurance. I lost contact with Samson until just before Thanksgiving 2018, when I got a call from the jail. He'd been arrested and wanted me to bail him out. In good conscience I couldn't because he had nowhere to live, no transportation or reliable communication, and no appropriate winter clothing. It was January before he was released.
This spring I got another call from the jail; Samson had been once again been arrested. Studies show that once an individual is in the criminal justice system, they are 90% more likely to remain there in some capacity even after the original offense is resolved. For people of African descent in Allen County, constituting an estimated 13% of the population in 2018 but 43% of the inmate demographic, the community impact is gargantuan.
Unfortunately, Samson's story isn't unique and is becoming rapidly more familiar here in Indiana. While the Allen County Jail remains overcrowded 10 months out of the year, statewide the jail incarceration rate rose 32% between 2013 and 2015, when Sam graduated high school, according to research by the Vera Institute.
I agree with Faith in Indiana. With an almost $20 million surplus, the Allen County Council, sheriff and commissioners should seriously consider providing the $200,000 needed to pilot a better alternative to incarceration for all its citizens, with the potential of having a dramatic impact on the community of people of African descent.
Ketu Oladuwa, a Fort Wayne resident, is co-founder of Death Row Shadows.