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New inmate mental health facility discussion pushed to December

A delegation of Shelby County officials last month visited the Davidson County Residential Drug Court and Davidson County Behavioral Care Center with the hope that a similar facility could be brought to Shelby County.

Now, Shelby County commissioners hope to make that a reality. The commission discussed this week allocating $2.5 million from the American Rescue Plan Act fund to the cost of developing the facility.

The resolution up for discussion allows for the funds to be used for feasibility studies, reviews of potential site acquisition and architectural design.

While the discussion ultimately ended with the item’s deferral on Monday, many commissioners agreed the facility should be built and developed but with unanswered questions the item the pushed the measure to next month’s meeting. The item will be brought back to commissioners on Dec. 13.

“We do need to get started, but maybe we need a little more time to figure out exactly how to initiate that we’re taking into account all those needs,” Commissioner Mick Wright said.

Frankie Dakin, Mayor Lee Harris’ deputy chief of staff, presented on the results from the Nashville model. According to Dakin, recidivism among program graduates has lowered from 29% to 24% as the program enters its third year. Commissioner Erika Sugarmon said that mental health needs to be addressed if stakeholders are trying to reduce crime.

“I believe there are about 2,000 pretrial detainees at 201 Poplar, and a third of them have mental or health issues where they need to see a doctor, or be medicated or those kinds of things, “Sugarmon said. “Because we don’t have the beds and the facilities, (detainees) just languish until the beds open up and exasperates their mental health.”

During discussions, Commissioner Brandon Morrison asked if there would be state support for the remainder of the funding needed for the development of the facility. Dakin said that he believes that the facility aligns with much of what Gov. Bill Lee has supported in the past and continues to support, but the $2.5 million would not cover the total cost of the facility’s development.

Commissioner Amber Mills expressed concern of the overall cost of the facility, which could be upwards of $25 million. Mills said she supports the facility and would vote for it ultimately but wanted to have more concrete information about the overall cost.

“I think this is something we all want to get behind, we want to solve crime because its the number one issue in Shelby County right now,” Mills said.

On the same topic of cost, Commissioner Shante Avant expressed disappointment and disapproval in the Harris administration for another large funding ask. Avant questioned if the county had the capacity to tack on another high-cost project while still trying to finance the schools and Regional One.

Dakin said administration is still committed to the competition of the two schools and Regional One, and that the mental health facility funding would have no impact on the previous projects.

Mental health facility hopes to reduce recidivism

Sugarmon, who has sponsored the resolution, said in October that a facility of this kind could address all aspects of public safety and well-being. Sugarmon also directed the delegation of Shelby County officials to Nashville’s facility.

“Hopefully what it means is that once we get to Davidson County and look at their facilities, we can garner some of their support, as well as some ideas and bring it back home to Shelby County,” Sugarmon said before the October trip. “Because you know, public health and safety and all these things, mental health are huge issues here. But we don’t have a facility to encompass all of these things under one roof, and so that’s the idea.”

The “Nashville Model”, as it is referred to in the resolution, has looked to reduce recidivism. Staffers at the Davidson County Behavioral Care Center call it simply the BCC. Data from the BCC’s first two years returned a 29% recidivism rate, which is 17 percentage points lower than the Tennessee average of 46%. 

The money being allocated toward the facility will come from the operating budget. Sugarmon said that the money will be a “jumpstart” to the program making its way to Shelby County, and other sources of funds are being explored. Dakin has worked to coordinate the ins and outs of the facility coming to Shelby County.

“We’ve met with specialty court judges, the sheriff’s office, the public defender’s office and so many (other) stakeholders over the last year to talk about just the problem,” Dakin said. “And the problem is that we have way too many people with severe mental illness into 201 (Poplar) for far too long, and virtually everybody agrees on that.”

Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner said that he is excited about the prospect of having a facility dedicated to mental health treatment of detainees.

“We, the Shelby County Jails, are the largest mental health hospital in the state. When I made that statement, the state [legislature] did give me an additional 18 beds at MMH, but they’re not enough. It’s not enough for us,” Bonner said, “So, when you look at the possibility of having a 200-bed facility, of course you get excited because many detainees that are being housed on misdemeanor charges.”

The focus on mental health comes from the long stays that many detainees incur when they are arrested while suffering from mental health problems. Chief Jailer Curt Fields said that the “Memphis Model” would give Shelby County the opprotunity to change the narrative on how the county addresses persons who interact with the criminal justice system.

“These persons don’t have to be in our jail, we can give them wraparound services where they can receive medical care, they can receive different types of social services where they’re not in the same predicament,” Fields said. “

The facility would have a Mental Health Court, a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Crime Lab satellite office, offices for state probation officers, state attorney generals, county public defenders, rehabilitation programs, and other public safety initiatives. While stakeholders have been inspired by Nashville to develop the facility, Memphis’s execution of the facility will be catered to what Memphis needs.

The facility is all pretrial and post arrest, with the program focused solely on those who require mental health care and that meet certain standards to qualify for the programs.

Dakin said one are of the facility would be a clinical environment, with the focus being on helping those who pose no risk to others being released on a mental health treatment plan instead of staying inside 201 Poplar awaiting hearings.

“Their charges are not prosecuted if they complete the program as well. So they do not have to continue to be involved with the criminal justice system,” Dakin said. “Then they at least scheduled 30- and 60-day check-ins with those individuals to make sure that they have what they need.”

While the facility does not have a building yet, in October before the Shelby County delegation traveled to Nashville to tour the BCC, Sugarmon said the former Commercial Appeal Building on Union Ave. could be a viable option.

“It’s cheaper to fix something up as opposed to build from the ground up. However, we do have a Plan B and Plan C, but this (The former Commercial Appeal building) is an ideal location for what we envision,” Sugarmon said in October.

In September 2022, a subdivision permit was filed with the Memphis and Shelby County Division of Planning and Development that would split the property. The division would split the former five-story office building into one section and the property’s warehouse facility into another.

Neil Strebig contributed to this report.

Brooke Muckerman covers Shelby County Government for The Commercial Appeal. She can be reached at (901) 484-6225, and followed on X @BrookeMuckerman.

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