Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Safety center dies. Officials move on

I’m pretty sure the so-called public safety center proposal is dead.

The county just doesn’t have the money.

And residents aren’t going to foot the bill. Not if they have to make a choice between that and buying patrol cars or keeping teachers.

It’s just not happening. Finances being a roadblock and all.

But, county officials still want to do something to treat – rather than lock up – those taken into custody for public intoxication (like the average college kid and some of my friends) and the mentally ill who are arrested for nonviolent crimes.

It's not, however, going to be a $2 million diversion center. Instead, officials are taking a different route, one that started Tuesday in a meeting held by the mental health subcommittee, a panel county Mayor Tim Burchett formed in late January “to look at best practices and other potential solutions” to help thin down the jail population and help the mentally ill.

(By the way, Burchett isn’t a member of the subcommittee but he did drop by to wish the folks “good luck.” Then he said he was headed out to work on balancing the county’s budget. Members should have told him “good luck.” But I digress.)

Here's a snapshot of what was discussed:

The conversation was mostly informal; the group didn't have a set agenda. Members spent a good deal of the two hours talking about how the hospitals, courts and jails serve as revolving doors for the mentally ill.

As sheriff's office Chief Rodney Bivens noted: “Common sense tells you that if someone can't keep their clothing on then the judges aren't going to let them back out on the streets.”

In other words, they're going to jail. But, as Bivens also said: “That's not really the place for them.”

“They have no business being there,” he added. “Sometimes they don't even know where they're at. Other times their memory is so far gone that they don't remember what we tell them.”

I think what he was trying to say is that these people are really crazy. I mean crazy, crazy. But that's not politically correct. He won't say it. I will. I don't care. About political correctness, I mean.

But again, someone needs to find the coin to fund whatever the county wants to do. And that's tough to do, said the good doctor and county Commissioner Richard Briggs.

“It's a hard time getting society to step and up and help these people,” he said. “When people are looking for ways to cut the budget, this is the thing they cut. If you're looking at cutting schools or helping the mentally ill, they're going to pick the kids over this.”

(On a side note, Briggs was not advocating picking kids over the mentally ill, or vice versa. He was just making a point. An obvious one. I'd do the same thing.)

Still, they can't ignore the problem, said John Gill, special counsel to Knox County District Attorney General Randy Nichols. It will only grow.

At this point, no one is sure what they will do.

The conference was more of a “get-to-know-each-other” deal.

But they did agree to come back with possible solutions, perhaps private-public partnerships, perhaps pilot programs. Perhaps nothing.

They are expected, however, to act on one suggestion by Burt Rosen, present of Knox Area Rescue Ministries. He asked everyone to “come up with what they think Knox County needs – regardless of the money.”

Perhaps, he said, volunteers could fill the roles.

We'll see.

They meet again in May.

Maybe they'll have better luck than the public safety center proposal did.

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