News Flash

Mental Health

Posted on: May 20, 2021

Mental Health Diversion serves as an alternative to incarceration

Logo for Sarpy Responses: Mental Health Crisis series

By Emily Ramm/Sarpy County Communications Specialist

Sarpy County made a significant commitment to helping those experiencing mental illness with the creation of the Mental Health Diversion program.

Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov established the specialized program with the hope of assisting people who commit low-level crimes – crimes that likely would’ve been avoided had the person’s underlying mental health issues been addressed and treated.

Successful participants not only better themselves and their quality of life, but their success saves communities and the criminal justice system time and money.

“What we’re doing is investing in the future,” Polikov said. “Because if they go through that revolving door, and it gets worse, they hurt themselves or someone else, then the community wants to know why we didn’t do something.”

Launching the program

The program began in 2012 when Polikov enlisted Diversion Officer Dean Loftus to help identify good candidates for Mental Health Diversion.

At that time, Loftus reviewed participants of Sarpy County Adult Diversion and found that about 40% of clients self-reported that they experienced mental health issues. Common diagnoses included extreme cases of depression and anxiety.

A common case meant for Mental Health Diversion is someone charged with disturbing the peace, and the criminal activity stemmed from the person being in crisis and off their medication. Instead of facing jail time or a monetary fine – neither of which would address the person’s mental illness – the County Attorney’s Office referred the person to Mental Health Diversion, where they’d participate in programming to treat their issues.

“With diversion, you’re really helping people,” Loftus said. “Some people will do really, really well. Some people can’t do it, and some people don’t want to do it. But the success stories are the high point of the program, and it’s amazing to see the change in people and how they go forward with their lives in a really good place.”

Meeting clients where they’re at

Sarpy County Mental Health Diversion is a voluntary program that’s offered as an alternative to the formal court process. Diversion participants are generally referred by the County Attorney’s Office, though they can be referred by the Diversion Office or after a screening completed at the Sarpy County Jail.

The jail screenings have helped identify good candidates and enroll participants in diversion quickly.

After the Diversion Office reviews the case, they get to know the participant and conduct an intake interview. The participant then signs a contract that stipulates the terms of their individualized program, which can include conditions like attending therapy, taking prescribed medications and participating in other services to address their mental illness, substance abuse issues or addictions.

“All of our programs are individualized,” said Diversion Supervisor David Soto. “We’ll look at the charge, and then require alcohol or drug-related classes or a decision-making class, in addition to addressing their mental health needs. We meet our clients where they’re at. Someone’s mental health issues might include social anxiety, and so for them, a class with 20-some people won’t work. We’ll personalize it by doing a one-on-one education class.”

Once participants have successfully completed their program, their charge is dismissed. Today, the program has about 40 participants at any given time, and the program has had great success in setting participants up for long-term stability.

“A participant’s length in diversion depends on their offense and how long they need to complete their program,” said Diversion Supervisor Carisa Gosda. “Everyone has their own benchmarks, goals, classes and monthly assignments, and once they complete those, they’re considered successfully completed. It takes a lot of commitment and effort on their part, and we’re proud of the participants who do the work and end up with positive results and on a better life path.”

Conversation about Mental Health Diversion with Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov

This has been Part 4 in an ongoing series on Sarpy County’s Mental Health Services. Check out our prior installments: