Following a presentation and lingering discussion, Shelby County Commissioners Monday (Nov. 13) tabled a vote on a $2.5 million feasibility study for a proposed mental health facility until after the Thanksgiving holiday.
“Approval of this item will give our partners in law enforcement a new tool to reduce crime. Specifically, we want to begin the process of building a county-owned facility to divert individuals from jail to appropriate mental healthcare,” said administration Deputy Chief of Staff Frankie Dakin.
Commissioner Erika Sugarmon sponsored the item. Commissioner Charlie Caswell Jr. was added as a co-sponsor.
The initial outlay would come from American Rescue Plan Act funding. The estimated total cost for the project is $25 million.
The resolution would also fund design plans for a “Mental Health, Safety and Justice Center” to divert people with mental illness from possible jail time. It would be modeled after a Nashville facility run by the Davidson County Sheriff’s Department. Among the services offered at the site are therapy, medications, and a discharge plan.
“It has really made an impact on recidivism. Their recidivism rate is less than half the national average,” said Dakin.
He also called the Shelby County Jail at 201 Poplar the largest mental health provider in the region.
“This has been the norm for decades and it absolutely should not be. It does not make moral sense and it sure does not improve public safety,” said Dakin.
Initial plans call for four separate units, housing up to 15 patients each. Two would serve more severe needs. The other two would serve patients with lesser demands. From there, they would be connected with wraparound services to prevent recidivism.
Commissioner Britney Thornton argued there should be a larger review of whether a new jail is needed. She also said the 60 beds in the proposed facility would fall short of the “total population” needs.
“I heard about 700 persons identified that could potentially need access to this service,” said Thornton. “It seems like we’re serving the tip of the iceberg where the needs are.”
Many who end up in the County Jail are homeless, who are typically brought in on misdemeanor charges, like disorderly conduct or criminal trespassing charges. Mental illness often plays a factor.
“Those persons may not have been on their medications. If we can find the right facility to give them these wraparound services, those persons don’t have to be in our jail,” said Chief Jailer Kirk Fields, Shelby County Sheriff’s Office.
Several commissioners expressed enthusiasm during their comments. However, the mention of money, particularly seven figures, brought demands for further detail.
“I need to see what’s going to be on the back end of this. This is $2.5 (million) to hire somebody to design a facility. We don’t know where. We’ve got to purchase land. How many employees are we hiring? This is all going to come back to us…I’m seeing on page of a big, old book,” said commissioner Amber Mills.
Commissioner Shante Avant also questioned the timing of the request. Earlier in the year, the commission agreed to an administration request to fund $350 million of a $750 million rebuild of the Regional One Health Campus. The resolution also funds the construction of high schools in Cordova and Frayser.
For his part, commissioner Mick Wright said the conversation on the first $2.5 million was just beginning.