In late February 2016, social media lit up with pictures of a totally naked man standing in line at the American Airlines ticket counter at Nashville International Airport. Mainstream newspapers around the globe picked up the story.
The Metro Police Department was summoned and officers escorted the man to a waiting squad car. He submitted without resistance, according to news reports. Charged with indecent exposure, he was sentenced to 20 days in jail.
Except for creating a minor disturbance, the man caused no harm to anyone. So was police arrest the most appropriate response? How did that help the man or society in general?
Those questions were posed by Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall at Thursday’s luncheon meeting of The Rotary Club of McMinnville.
“Three out 10 people arrested are diagnosed as mentally ill. It’s at least 30 percent in your local jail,” said Hall, who has received national honors for his advocacy of mental health treatment where appropriate for jail and prison inmates.
Besides organic or traumatic causes of mental problems, substance addiction is another powerful driver in the exploding jail population in most American communities. When questioned about their lifestyle before arrest, “nine out of 10 will tell you they are addicted.”
Tennessee, like many other states, began cutting in-patient treatment facilities for the mentally ill in the mid-1960s. This process of “de-institutionalization” in favor of what was called community-based care has largely failed millions of people whose only offense is a mental condition that keeps them from operating in the accepted social mainstream, Hall said.
“I run the largest mental health institution in our county,” said the Rotary speaker, who oversees an annual jail budget of $100 million. The situation is very similar to Warren County, except on a larger scale, said Hall, who was first elected Davidson County sheriff in 2002 and is now serving his fifth consecutive term.
But he didn’t set out to run a warehouse for victims of mental disorders. It’s just that our society, and our elected policymakers, have failed to come up with a good answer.
“We’ve done everything backwards in this country,” said Hall, citing his participation in international conferences on law enforcement practices and criminal detention. In one such summit in Europe, some delegates “snickered” when he was introduced as an American sheriff, and later asked, “Why do you over-incarcerate people instead of taking them to mental health treatment?”
Taxpayer money spent on incarceration could be better used to provide professional treatment, monitoring and management of non-violent offenders who really need those services. A stay in jail or prison does nothing to address their underlying issues, and when they are released they are likely to be recycled into the criminal justice system, Hall emphasized.
He noted one Nashville resident who has been re-arrested 596 times.
In fact, the cost per-bed for building a jail is about twice that for providing a bed in new mental health facility. The same goes for the personnel costs for jail staff versus mental health professionals, he explained.
“I hope you don’t build more and more jails” when you should be putting resources into mental health care, Hall pleaded, focusing on Warren County’s current debate over an estimated $6.5 million jail addition.
Providing those services need not demand more public money than is already spent on jailing mentally disabled people “on top of” serious criminal offenders. The standard model for criminal justice “is like picking up sand with a pitchfork.” Why not re-allocate some of the present tax proceeds from expensive but unproductive incarceration to mental health treatment that could improve the lives of people, their families and society as a whole?
Over a 10-year period under Hall’s leadership, Davidson County has reduced its jail population by 32 percent, including closing a 300-bed detention facility in 2011.
Carving out $10 million of the funding for Metro’s new jail, he spearheaded the creation of a Behavioral Care Center, a 60-bed facility which, when opened in 2020, will provide professional mental health services and follow-up care for arrestees on minor, non-violent offenses.
Hall expands on his Rotary remarks when he addressed issues in an interview this week in the “Focus” series on public radio WCPI 91.3. The half-hour conversation airs Wednesday at 5 a.m., Thursday at 1 p.m. and Friday at 1 a.m.
The popular Davidson County sheriff has a McMinnville connection as he is married to the former Ginger Roberts, daughter of retired U.S. Postal Service employee and Warren County Commission member Jerry Roberts and the late June Roberts.