Tackling Mental Illness in Jails

 Welcome to the maiden edition of MirrorIt, a new series that focuses on strategic nonprofit and association management. For today’s edition I am sharing key findings of a 2017 desk-review I conducted on the National Association of Counties and its “Stepping Up” Project.

 The National Association of Counties (NACo) is a national powerhouse for thousands of local county officials collectively advocating transformational solutions for their constituents. NACo’s members are its greatest strength. This is why since  its founding in 1935, the trade association  has remained unrelenting in the pursuit of its mission which focuses on amplifying the voices of 3,069 county authorities with whom it has developed a powerful emotional connection over the years. In essence, NACo seeks to shape and sharpen members’ ability to lead effectively while focusing on exploring results-driven strategies to issues being experienced by member counties.

One interesting fact about NACo is it’s commitment  to strengthening local counties’ resiliency in dealing with threats, such as natural disasters and economic crisis, to their survival. It achieves this goal by enhancing members’ leadership and decision-making abilities to effectively identify and manage such risks. And while the bottom line is to reduce waste and duplication by ensuring that tax dollars are used effectively and efficiently, the focus is more directed at making counties vibrant, safe and healthy.

This is why in 2015, NACo joined forces with the American Psychiatric Association Foundation and The Council of State Governments Justice Center to roll out a justice project, “Stepping Up”, that seeks to lessen the number of individuals with mental illness booked into county jails.

However, with two years into its implementation, there is no readily available national data on the project’s progress, making it impossible to track its progress and determine whether it is treading in the direction of intended goals or not. It is therefore incumbent on NACo to mandate member counties to benchmark progress towards goals and produce periodic data for consolidation, to provide a national picture of whether the number of people with mental illness booked into jails is increasing or decreasing.

This report presents findings of an intense outcome-based evaluation of the “Stepping Up” project’s implementation thus far. It highlights key challenges and strategies for overall program and organizational success. The monthlong evaluation draws from multiple web-based sources, including NACo’s corporate website (http://www.naco.org/), The Justice Center (https://csgjusticecenter.org), as well as NACo’s 2015 and 2016 annual reports. Four probing questions were used for data collection purposes: (a) how interested are counties in the project? (b) what measurable change has been made relative to reducing the prevalence of incarcerated people with mental issues between 2015 and 2017? (c) why is there no comprehensive national data on people with mental illness incarcerated in county jails? (d) how involved are beneficiaries and their families in the project’s design and implementation, and do they believe that the project’s objectives are being met? Feedback collected informed assessment findings.

Key findings include:

  1. a) Though innovative, the project lacks measurable results. As a result, there is no comprehensive national data on the project’s established goals.
  2. b) Implementing counties have to benchmark progress due to their ability to accurately collect, share and use data for project’s mission fulfillment purposes.
  3. c) Program beneficiaries and family are not fully involved with the project’s design and implementation.


Scores of individuals with mental disorders, including those guilty of abusing controlled dangerous substance (CDS), are repeatedly booked into processing units across the country each year. This puts huge pressure on counties’ scarce resources as they strive to maintain such individuals in jail. Thus, NACo’s “Stepping Up” project seeks to ease this burden on counties by empowering them to reduce the number of people with mental disabilities in jails. The project is a key initiative under NACo’s “Smart Justice” program and specifically seeks to arm local authorities with leadership and decision-making tools needed to drastically reduce the number of individuals with mental disorders booked into jails (The Justice Center, 2017).  Overall, a generally used sequential intercept model, designed and recommended for used by NACo, guides counties into establishing “mobile crisis outreach teams, screen for mental illness and provide comprehensive jail-based mental health services” (NACo, n.d.).

 Analysis of Findings

Findings suggest a significant threat to the project’s implementation is the fact that its impact is not being tracked. Though the program has made staggering progress in attracting 365 participating counties between 2015 and 2017, there is no available data to demonstrate collective progress being made toward achieving the goal to reduce the number of mentally impaired individuals booked into jails. There is also no indication of feedback from beneficiaries and families on the project’s implementation method. This study also found that participating counties are modifying NACo’s “sequential intercept model” to implement policies targeted at meeting project’s goals at county levels.

Stay tuned for more…..

<<This was a class project>>


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