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Mental Health Community Weighs in on MI Sentencing Reforms

Michigan's new Justice Policy Commission is getting to work reviewing sentencing and release policies, and representatives from the mental-health community are among those bringing their expertise to  the table. Credit: Meesh/Flickr.
Michigan's new Justice Policy Commission is getting to work reviewing sentencing and release policies, and representatives from the mental-health community are among those bringing their expertise to the table. Credit: Meesh/Flickr.
July 29, 2015

LANSING, Mich. - A new commission is investigating criminal justice reform in Michigan, and mental-health workers are among those weighing in on ways to revamp policies that keep nonviolent offenders unnecessarily locked up.

Clinical social worker Jennifer Strange, among those on the Criminal Justice Policy Commission, said the state has a history of long sentences for crimes that sometimes are not in the best interest of the prisoner.

"If we're putting people into settings that maybe are not rehabilitative, potentially causing more damage because of the things that they are exposed to in those settings," she said, "we're really setting up a cycle, really setting up future issues, because that person's not going to get the services that they actually need."

As she has worked in the Department of Corrections, Strange said, she's seen a carryover of inmates with mental-health or substance abuse issues not getting the care they need. With the proper treatment, she said, many low-level offenders can be rehabilitated and transitioned back into the community.

Strange said community-based treatment settings sometimes are a better alternative to prison time, depending on the circumstances.

"There are things like sobriety court as well as mental-health courts. Substance-abuse treatment facilities could potentially be in the community or sometimes a crossover into a more structured setting," she said. "Those are all viable alternatives, provided that safety needs are met for the public as well."

Other members of the commission represent prosecutors, sheriffs, judges and defense attorneys, and Strange said she feels her involvement shows that leaders are starting to value what social workers can bring to the table.

"It's really great what social workers are doing," she said. "They're starting to be recognized having a seat on these types of commissions, and I think it's a good progress for social workers in general."

The commission is part of Gov. Rick Snyder's plans to reform criminal justice in Michigan. Other initiatives include reducing recidivism by training offenders for new jobs, and diverting and rehabilitation before an offender is incarcerated.

Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - MI