Neustrom hones in on mental illness

by Patrick Flanagan

In one of the last major initiatives of his 16-year administration, Lafayette Parish Sheriff Mike Neustrom turned the office's focus toward changing our approach to the mentally ill.

Outgoing Sheriff Mike Neustrom
Photo by Robin May

In one of the last major initiatives of his 16-year administration, Lafayette Parish Sheriff Mike Neustrom turned the office's focus toward changing how the criminal justice system approaches the mentally ill.

The initiative started in October 2015 when the LPSO was selected as one of only 64 communities nationwide to participate in the Data-Driven Justice Initiative at the White House in Washington, D.C.

The effort, according to a press release issued Thursday by LPSO, is aimed at "using data-driven strategies to divert low-level offenders with mental illness out of the criminal justice system and to changing approaches to pre-trial incarceration so that low-risk offenders no longer stay in jail simply because they cannot afford a bond."

Overcoming these issues has been a focus at LPSO for many years under Neustrom's watch. Yet, as Neustrom and his outgoing Director of Corrections Rob Reardon will attest, there is still much work to be done on this complex problem. And that's where the partnership with the White House and its Data-Driven Justice Initiative come into play.

According to figures provided in Thursday's press release, about 4.2 percent of adult residents in Lafayette Parish are living with a "serious mental illness." That's about 7,500 adults living among us. These are our neighbors, friends, family members. And what makes these figures more alarming is the fact that more than 60 percent of these people statewide have received no treatment for their mental illness, which in many cases will end up in their eventual incarceration.

"This costs taxpayers more money than if these individuals were receiving appropriate care in the community," says Reardon.

That cost to taxpayers shouldn't be ignored. According to figures provided by LPSO, a single incarceration costs an average of $54 a day, and if that individual remains the full 60 days, which is the case for the great majority, that ends up coming to a grand total of $3,240. Yet if we instead diverted that mentally ill inmate from jail into a treatment program like Tyler Mental Health Clinic, the cost would ultimately come out to $2,750. That's a savings of $490, which does not include the potential for an emergency room visit had that inmate stayed incarcerated, which would cost a minimum of $580.

"During our time with the White House Administration, we had the opportunity to meet with national leaders who have successfully implemented strategies that reduced incarceration rates, improved public safety and provided mental health services to those in need," says Neustrom in a prepared statement issued Thursday.

Fifteenth Judicial District Judge Marilyn Castle also weighed in on the benefits of these efforts, which have since culminated in the creation of a local Mental Health-Criminal Justice Collaborative. "Our local collaborative has developed a streamlined process to complete sanity evaluations on these individuals on an expedited basis," Castle says in a prepared statement. "This improved process will keep our community safer, protect our jail personnel and more quickly get these individuals with significant mental health needs access to treatment in a secure environment."

So with Thursday marking Neustrom's last day as sheriff, how will his successor approach this effort? Mark Garber, who was sworn in Friday morning, says during the transitional period he has kept up with both the work of the local collaborative and the federal Data-Driven Justice Initiative. "I know that the improvements being implemented through them will positively benefit the sheriff's office and the community," Garber says in the same release.

For more on our recent coverage of the sheriff's office and Neustrom's retirement, click here.