Community resources for jail alternatives

This weekend the new Town Council spent valuable time outlining our visions for Chapel Hill over the next 10, 15, 20 or more years. One thing that surprised us is our common assumption that the Town will need to intensify its support of human services.

In 2012, our Human Services Advisory Board commissioned a study to assess these needs. Leading the list were affordable housing, affordable health care, education and family resources, jobs and job training, food, and transportation. In addition to these worthy areas, the Town has embraced the notion that our criminal justice system has a responsibility not just to punish but to support and rehabilitate, and that the Town has a role to play. Toward that end, we’ve made changes in our public housing policies and the Town’s hiring practices.

The latest step is the recent establishment of the Criminal Justice Resource Center in Orange County. This excellent result benefitted from the advocacy of the Jail Alternatives Work Group, a countywide group of stakeholders that includes Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue.

Travis Myren, hired last summer as deputy county manager, produced in short order a comprehensive recommendation of how to organize such a center, incorporating the views of Work Group members as well as reports of national best practices. On the basis of this report, the County Commissioners approved the establishment of the Center.

County Manager Bonnie Hammersley explains that the Center’s charge is “to increase participation and success rates of jail alternative programs. As programming expands, we also hope to address mental health needs in the criminal justice system and reduce recidivism in the long term through connections to services in and out of the jail.”

In November, Caitlyn Fenhagen began work as the Center’s manager. An accomplished local defense attorney, she brings to this new position years of experience and advocacy for strengthening support for those at the margins of our community. Speaking with her last week, I caught her enthusiasm for the possibilities that this new work holds.

First, the Center brings in-house two essential functions that had been contracted out for many years: the Pretrial Services Program and the Drug Treatment Program. This move improves accountability, efficiency, and the ability to coordinate across program lines.

Ted Dorsi, in Pretrial Services, comes to the position of case manager with fourteen years of experience in Orange County. His fluency in Spanish is one of the skills that he brings to connecting clients to the services and treatments they need.

Drug Treatment Coordinator is Courtney Kennedy Pair, who has capably administered Orange County’s adult drug treatment and family drug treatment courts for twelve years.

With these programs in place, Fenhagen determined that a third position would dramatically increase the effectiveness of both: a licensed clinician. A clinician could to concentrate on promoting opportunities for pretrial release and ensuring that appropriate treatment referrals are being made for individuals in the jail who may be considered for release, as well as for those in jail diversion programs. The clinician would have the time and the resources to assess the needs of individuals for mental health and substance use disorder treatment, providing a critical link in the system.

This new position of Criminal Case Assessment Specialist has recently been established, and Allison Zirkel, a licensed clinical social worker and licensed clinical addictions specialist, holds the job temporarily, while the permanent hiring process proceeds. Funding will come at no additional cost to the County, thanks to creative thinking about the use of reserve funds held by Cardinal Innovations (the LME for Orange and Chatham counties).

In talking about these programs and the future directions in which she would like to take this important work, Fenhagen emphasizes that the aim is to keep people in community. The overarching goal is to keep people out of jail by keeping them connected with the resources they need. Here is where the Town, and all of us in the County, come back into the picture.

The issues of substance abuse and mental health, which lie at the crux of the dilemma for so many who wind up in jail, are intimately connected to large community issues: access to clinical treatment, access to housing, access to jobs. “As support dries up for social services,” says Fenhagen, “our jails are becoming warehouses for people who would be better treated elsewhere. The challenge is to partner effectively with community providers.”

Fenhagen wants to reach beyond the community of criminal justice stakeholders to coordinate with these other entities. Among them are the county’s Department of Social Services, housing providers and advocates at the nonprofit and local government levels, the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness, local law enforcement, all of these agencies and more, whose work supports overlapping populations.

At the highest levels, the Obama Administration is working diligently to change a system that, in the past twenty-five years, has seen prison and jail populations climb to an all-time high and the number of people on probation and parole double. The answers, however, are not going to come from the top down. The solutions are going to come through greater collaboration and coordination of the resources we do have locally, and sustained advocacy for the most vulnerable of those among us. Only with all of our help can this work succeed.


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