Individuals returning to their community after jail are faced with a number of challenges, which too often land them back in jail.

Kansas City Municipal Court Judge Corey Carter has a firsthand view. When people leave jail and do not have a bridge to proper community support or resources, he sees them again in court.

The Kansas City Municipal Court is hoping to end this cycle of recidivism, by helping to address the challenges too often faced by those returning to society. With $750,000 in grant funding to address recidivism from the U.S Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), the city is launching a new program, the KC Second Chance Reentry Program. The program will focus on working specifically with returning individuals dealing with both mental illness and substance abuse issues.

The program is based on accepting rehabilitation and reentry as core responsibilities of corrections. With that in mind, prior to offenders leaving jail, the program will work to reduce recidivism, by addressing issues such as homelessness and unemployment by providing proper housing, employment, drug rehabilitation and mental health support services.

The KC Second Chance Reentry program is partnered with Truman Medical Center, which is offering case management services for behavioral health and substance use, and Heartland Behavioral Center for Change to provide housing for those reentering society.

“We’re constantly working towards a viable solution to address the rate of recidivism amongst people that fall into the co-occurring mental illness and substance abuse category,” said Judge Carter, who is overseeing the KC Second Chance Program. “The population that we’re seeking to address, intervene and serve, have the highest rate of recidivism. They are the people that we see most frequently.”

Studies show that individuals with co-occurring mental illness and substance abuse have the highest rate of recidivism. Researchers from Case Western Reserve University’s Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences found a 68% recidivism rate for those with co-occurring mental illness and substance abuse.

While the Jackson County Detention Center (JCDC) does not routinely calculate recidivism, they have some data on “high jail utilizers,” or people booked into jail repeatedly. According to a report from JCDC, between Jan. and June 2018, 83 people were booked a total of 358 times, which is an average of four bookings per person, or one booking nearly every month. Of those 83 people, 60% had an identified mental illness.

Toni Choate, case manager for the program, is tasked with making contact with qualifying inmates. She’s the bridge, connecting them to helpful resources and keeping them engaged with those services.

Choate said she has seen many offenders with mental illness who may commit crimes when they leave jail because they are unable to obtain their medication. She said the program would help identify and address some of those underlying issues causing them to reenter the court system.

“We’re actually looking at reducing the amount of times people are coming into the court,” Choate said. “We’re into making things better for the people in Kansas City and this is one way we’re doing that.”

“We’re going to pour a lot of energy and effort to making this a successful program,” Carter said. “We hope that during this pilot phase of this project that we are able to establish a track record of success, which we can expand the program in the future.”

The municipal court is looking at similar programs with proven success for future models, like the program administered by the Harris Center for Mental Health and Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities in Houston. Under this program, individuals with mental illness and substance abuse are diverted from jail.

One of the jail diversion centers in Harris County allows law enforcement to divert individuals with mental illness, who have been picked up for low-level, non-violent offenses, to a mental health intervention. They found individuals with more than five bookings who were diverted directly to mental health intervention were 2.9 times less likely to be booked into jail on a new offense than those not diverted. Those diverted with no previous bookings were 44.9 times less likely to be booked into jail on a new offense than those not diverted.

“A second chance is an opportunity not present in many parts of the world outside of our nation,” Carter said. “As such, within our system of justice, we should take care to afford those that have been incarcerated a meaningful opportunity to make the most of a second chance … should they decide it is time for a change.”

Jazzlyn Johnson is a Report for America corps member based at The Community Voice covering Kansas City’s African-American community.

Jazzlyn "Jazzie” is the former senior reporter for our team, who joined the company in 2020 in the midst of the pandemic, through the Report for America service program. For the past two years, she covered...

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