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Black Hawk County sheriff pushes jail diversion programs in budget talks

Black Hawk County sheriff pushes jail diversion programs in budget talks

Tony Thompson new


WATERLOO — Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson delivered his budget request this week with a large asterisk.

The $14 million spending plan presented to the county Board of Supervisors Tuesday was designed to maintain the status quo for the sheriff’s office patrol, jail and civil divisions.

But Thompson said his budget may need to grow if the supervisors want to invest in programs designed to divert persons with mental health and substance abuse issues from the jail to more appropriate treatment programs.

A request to beef up courthouse security with deputy patrols is also on the table.

Thompson said he was passionate about efforts to set up a mobile response team to handle mental health and substance abuse crisis events before a person is arrested.

“A county jail is not supposed to be a mental health facility,” Thompson said. “It’s not what our charge is.

“Every single day we deal with: There’s no other place to put them so let’s go ahead and arrest them,” he said. “We don’t arrest our way out of the problem. We criminalize the mentally ill. We make it much more difficult for them, because they can’t get out of the criminal justice system. They fail on probation. They recidivate. They have a much more difficult time navigating the court system. They cost us more money.”

Thompson is working with County Social Services and other agencies on setting up and funding a mobile response team, which likely would involve both law enforcement and social workers.

A new substance abuse detox center at Pathways Behavioral Services and plans to open a mental health access center north of Waterloo will soon provide non-jail options when incidents happen.

Thompson said he’s seen a similar model in San Antonio, Texas, but does not believe a similar crisis response model is being use anywhere in Iowa today.

While Thompson said it’s possible the crisis response team program would not increase the county’s budget allocation, he is also proposing adding a new full-time employee in the jail to work with a Department of Correctional Services social worker to find ways to move inmates already in jail to appropriate mental health treatment programs. He said the county’s post-arrest diversion program is already the “finest in the state” and could be improved with another staff member.

Inmates with mental health issues are one of the reasons the jail population has grown and sometimes forces deputies to transport inmates to other county jails.

“What I don’t want to be is that sheriff who comes to you in a couple of years and says you’ve got to build more (jail) beds,” Thompson said. “Anything we can do to divert and be more responsible to the 272 beds we have in that facility is to our advantage.”

The supervisors voiced support for Thompson’s efforts and said they were hopeful funding for the crisis response team could be put in place.

“I fully support us moving in that direction and I’m really grateful County Social Services is considering partnering with us here in Black Hawk County,” said Supervisor Chris Schwartz. “It’s going to save us a lot of money down the road in addition to just being the morally right thing to be doing.”

Plans to increase courthouse security were not as warmly received.

County Attorney Brian Williams has asked for more deputies to be assigned to courthouse security, especially after an incident recently when one of his assistants was nearly assaulted in a courtroom. Thompson said he does not believe his current budget can support hiring two more deputies, but indicated he might be able to fund one position from room and board funds collected from jail inmates.

Supervisor Craig White said he didn’t support the plan.

“I don’t see it as a big problem right now,” White said. “I think we’re throwing money out the window.”

The supervisor are expected to consider the courthouse security issue as part of the overall budget to be adopted by the end of March.

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Jeff Reinitz is the Courier's longtime crime and courts reporter.


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