Christine Cole, Executive Director

A lot has happened in the world and in areas of our work since we sent our last update in April.

Words cannot express the horror of George Floyd’s death, killed by a white police officer on a public street while other officers stood idly by. Nor can mere words calm the outrage or ease the pain caused by Floyd’s death. Or Ahmaud Arbery’s. Or Breonna Taylor’s. Or so many others.

The killings of Black and brown Americans and the structural racism in our society that has allowed them to happen, often with impunity, demand more than words. We plan to take action. We’re engaging in internal conversations about ways to use our data-driven, non-partisan policy work and the incredible talent of our staff so we can actively address these biases and create a more fair and just system.

As we saw in Minneapolis, having the right policies in place is not enough. We need to emphasize the quality of training, supervisory review, and community building. Working with communities has always been important, but it’s especially important now with demands for increasing justice and decreasing police budgets. Reimagining the goals of police alongside their policies and activities can ensure other government actors have the budget, staff, and will to fill the gaps in service. 
In the meantime, we offer a concrete step for police and community leaders. CJI developed a tool last year that facilitates a self-assessment of policies and practices around use of force, supervision, and training. The tool, based on an analysis of 21 consent decrees from the past two decades, is useful for law enforcement and community leaders looking to strengthen their departments through a constitutional lens. It’s an easy check on how agency policies stand up to basic expectations of the constitution and current policies vetted by experts and the DOJ.

The protests and significant civil unrest are happening as we continue to exist in a pandemic. Our work with several partners on COVID-related projects remains important. If you’re interested in how we can support you, here’s an overview of the COVID technical assistance CJI can provide.

Below, check out our spotlight on South Dakota's new Virtual Crisis Care pilot program and some highlights of CJI’s recent work.

Until next time.

  • The Clean Slate Initiative, which CJI supports as a member of the Steering Committee and a technical assistance provider, is supporting multiple states in their campaigns to pass automatic record clearance legislation. Despite the shutdown due to COVID-19 and subsequent redirection of legislative sessions, the Michigan Clean Slate bill passed the House and awaits a Senate floor vote later this fall, and Louisiana’s governor signed into law three pieces of legislation expanding access to criminal record clearance that will enable subsequent passage of Clean Slate legislation.

  • A bipartisan group of sponsors introduced a second round of Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration bills in the Michigan Senate on July 22 focused on arrest and sentencing practices. The Michigan Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader held a joint press conference announcing the introduction of the Senate package, reaffirming that jails reform is a top priority for the legislature this year. CJI is a partner with the Pew Charitable Trusts and continues to provide guidance to practitioners and policymakers around the state.

  • The Council on Criminal Justice has launched a new project to examine the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the justice system. The National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice, co-chaired by Attorney’s General Loretta Lynch and Alberto Gonzalez, held its first meeting in July. Thomas Abt is Commission Director and CJI is providing technical assistance.

  • The Council on Criminal Justice’s Board of Directors elected their inaugural membership class of top criminal justice experts, innovators and influencers, including CJI’s Christine Cole.  

A new program in South Dakota is using telemedicine technology to provide law enforcement with virtual, real-time access to mental health professionals when officers respond to a person experiencing a mental health crisis. Under the Virtual Crisis Care pilot program, mental health professionals at Avera eCare will assist South Dakota law enforcement via iPad to de-escalate, stabilize, and assess the safety of those in a crisis and arrange for follow-up care with local community mental health centers.

By mid-September 2020, the Virtual Crisis Care pilot program will be up and running for law enforcement in 18 counties and for probation officers in one Judicial Circuit that covers eight counties. CJI coordinated recruitment of the pilot counties and will now assist with project implementation and the evaluation of progress and outcomes in the hope of establishing more funding and expanding the program statewide.

“The goal of this pilot program is to prove its effectiveness, cost efficiency, and worth to communities and state leaders, so it can be made available to sheriff’s offices, police departments, and community supervision officers across South Dakota,” said Barbara Pierce, CJI Director of Justice Initiatives. “Connecting behavioral health professionals with law enforcement serving as first responders to mental health crises is not a new concept – mobile crisis teams are used in cities across the country. What is unique is making mobile crisis teams possible across rural communities.”

Virtual Crisis Care is expected to result in better outcomes for South Dakotans in rural areas including:
  • Fewer mental health holds
  • Decreased unneccessary inpatient hospitalizations and related costs
  • Increased connection to local mental health resources 
  • Avoidance of the stigma of being transported by law enforcement 

Most importantly, law enforcement will have mental health professionals on hand to help decide the best course of action for the person in crisis. Law enforcement officers will also reduce their time on the scene and avoid unnecessary out-of-county transports to mental health facilities. In addition, counties will avoid the legal and healthcare costs associated with the involuntary commitment hold process, and the state will free up state hospital beds that have historically been used for unnecessary mental illness holds.

“All too often, rural communities are excluded from pilot programs or other innovations because the number of people served can be quite small,” said Jerauld County Sheriff Jason Weber. “The people in our communities deserve the same resources and care as those in urban areas, so we are excited to be part of the Virtual Crisis Care program.”

The Virtual Crisis Care pilot program runs through June 2021 and is funded by a generous donation from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. Project partners include the South Dakota Unified Judicial System, telemedicine experts from Avera eCare, and the South Dakota Sheriffs Association.