Sheriff Will Treat Mentally Ill in New Jail Ward

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Sheriff Daron Hall wants to stop criminalizing the mentally ill. Photo by Peter White

By Peter White

NASHVILLE, TN — As a kid growing up in Antioch, Daron Hall never watched Roy Rogers or the Lone Ranger or Gene Autry or Gunsmoke.

“I am not interested in who done it. I don’t watch movies or have much interest in TV shows. They are about who did it and people like to catch ‘em. I have no interest in that. I’ve always been interested in figuring out why,” he said.

“I love thinking we can do something about it,” he added. Hall was elected Sheriff of Davidson County in 2002 and was elected to his fourth term in 2014.

Mayberry, not Tombstone, was the mythical place of Hall’s upbringing. And he is lot more like Sheriff Andy Griffith than Marshal Wyatt Earp. Hall has a framed photo of himself with Andy Griffith whom he knew and admired. It sits in a glass cabinet in his office next to the Fire Department HQ on 2nd Avenue.

One block away, the old Criminal Justice Center has been torn down. A new detention center will rise in its place by May 2019 and will cost $113.4 million. Sheriff Hall has a “first-of-its-kind” design for a 64-bed behavioral care center attached to the new jail. It will treat the mentally ill and then let them go.

“In the old days we would just treat them as a criminal and move them into the criminal justice system,” Hall said.

”Here’s how it works that makes it unique. These are pre-booked people. So that means, historically, you would have been booked, photographed, fingerprinted; treated like an inmate, taken to court, processed, dressed out, handcuffed, shackled, whatever,” Hall said.

“This is pre-booked. That means when they arrive here if they are mentally ill and they are misdemeanors, which is a large percentage of our population, when that person arrives here, they will immediately be moved into what is a diversion program in the behavioral care center here.“

Hall said 30% of the people in the county jail really need to be in treatment or in a better setting and the number one reason why most of them are in jail is because they violated their probation. “It tells you we should never have thought to put them on probation,” Hall says.

“Right now they are just being arrested, released, arrested again, then released…it’s terrible.”

“You should never be criminalized because you have an illness; you should never go to jail because you have cancer. We’d never think a heart attack deserves a five-year sentence. That just doesn’t make sense.”

What does make sense, and the Nashville PD, the DA’s office, and the Public Defender’s office agree, is a 30-day crisis intervention program where people are diagnosed and treated by mental health professionals before they go back out to live in the community. The follow up is with therapists, not the probation department, not the jail or its keepers.

“To get you completely out of the criminal justice system altogether that is our goal.” he said

Hall said the city will contract with an agency like Cornerstone or the Mental Health Cooperative to provide ongoing care and even housing for the people who have completed their stint in the jail’s mental health center. Treating the mentally ill as sick people and not as criminals is nothing new. But the behavioral care center, housed inside a jail, is the first of its kind in the country.

Hall said that he has always wanted to know why things happen. At 16 he read Helter Skelter, a book about the Charles Manson murders in California. It is in the same bookcase where Hall keeps his photo of Andy Griffith.

“I have always been interested to try and do something about what happens in society,” he said.

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