Some people accused of crimes in Monroe County will be diverted away from jails and into mental health care under a program that began last week.
Police officers and sheriff's deputies now have the option to refer people accused of misdemeanors or low-level violations to a behavioral clinic instead of booking them into jail. If people referred to the clinic complete their treatment course, run by Rochester Regional Health at its St. Mary's campus, the charges will never be filed.
The program has been a long time coming, Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley said. "We're very excited," Doorley said. "It's a project that we in law enforcement and the mental health community have been working on for quite some time."
Law enforcement leaders across the county praised the program. "It's a great tool for officers to use," said Sgt. Steve Boily, who commands the Rochester Police Department's crisis intervention team.
"Prison is not generally conducive to mental health," Boily said. "A jail-like setting tends to lack some of the mental health resources that you find in a clinic."
Fairport police Chief Sam Farina echoed those concerns, noting that when people with mental health troubles get booked in jail, they face a series of stressful situations without adequate care. The diversion program is a way to get them immediate help, he said.
Greece police Chief Pat Phelan said he doesn't think his officers will need additional training to determine who might be eligible for the diversion program. Performing basic evaluations of people's mental health status "is just a part of good police work," Phelan said.
In Rochester, Boily was working on training materials Friday morning. "It's really not a very complicated program, thank goodness," Boily said. "But we want to get the details out."
Directing people outside the criminal justice system is a departure from the traditional role of police officers, Boily and Phelan said. Still, it's an increasingly common approach across the country, and Phelan said it's an important way to interrupt what he called a "revolving door" of people leaving and re-entering jails and prisons.
"We need to change the way we're doing things. That's – that's the point. We need to break from the traditional way we've handled these situations. We need to start doing something different," said Phelan.
Rochester Regional Health said Wednesday that its health clinic had not yet seen any referrals under the new diversion program since it started Monday, but Farina said his officers came close to referring a man.
"An elderly person in his 80's punched a restaurant owner," Farina said. "He hadn't taken his meds, didn't understand his actions."
"What do we do with that? Do we put him in jail?" Farina asked. "What's the value of putting an 80-year-old person in jail?"
Brett Dahlberg is health reporter for WXXI News.