How does one propose solutions for diverting mentally ill individuals from jail without discussing the myriad other issues plaguing Louisiana’s criminal justice system?

It’s like eating an elephant, explained Holly Howat, executive director of the Lafayette Parish Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee: “One bite at a time.”

More than 70 community leaders gathered Wednesday to take that first bite during the inaugural meeting of the Mental Health-Criminal Justice Collaborative, an effort to foster teamwork between the criminal justice and behavioral health systems to divert mentally ill offenders from jail.

About 30 percent of Lafayette Parish inmates have a serious mental illness, and most are locked up for nonviolent offenses, said Rob Reardon, corrections director with the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office.

“Those individuals are continuously cycling through our system,” Reardon said, adding it comes at a major cost to taxpayers.

Howat said the primary goal of the collaborative is to break that cycle.

“It’s just as important to prevent people from getting entangled in the criminal justice process as it is to intervene,” Howat said.

One issue is the paucity of programs available to make sure a mentally ill individual who receives treatment in jail follows a treatment plan upon release.

Scott Mayers, a psychiatrist who serves the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office two days a week, said the agency’s handful of mental health workers provide crisis management inside the jail, but the cases are out of their hands once an offender is freed.

The staff will work toward getting a doctor’s appointment for those individuals “if someone is acutely psychotic or dangerous,” Mayers said, but there’s generally a six-month appointment backlog because few public health providers serve the large population of indigent patients.

The need for additional providers to serve those patients is so great that some group homes — where mental health patients receive constant care and are ferried to and from medical appointments — are operating without licenses, said Stan Rynott, a forensic social worker with the state Department of Health and Hospital’s Office of Behavioral Health.

“People quit the licenses because they’re so onerous. They can’t keep up with them financially,” Rynott said.

The discussions bled into other criminal justice issues, including the 45-day period allowed before an offender is charged with a misdemeanor crime. Should offenders be unable to make bail, they’ll be incarcerated during that time and possibly beyond.

Someone receiving subsidies because of a mental illness then loses those benefits after 30 days in jail, causing a roadblock to receiving treatment upon release, Reardon said.

Another major issue is the lack of modern communication among agencies. There’s no electronic database accessible to law enforcement agencies, prosecutors and the courts, which also creates an inefficient vacuum for public funds through duplicate data entry duties and time spent manually delivering information across various agencies, Reardon said.

Still, some progress is underway.

A low-barrier housing facility is in the planning stages. There, anyone will be able to find shelter at any time of day, an alternative to existing shelters that are often at capacity and require sobriety for entry — two barriers to receiving treatment.

The Sheriff’s Office also has been exploring opening a restoration center, where individuals may receive treatment and services in one location instead of getting booked into jail.

Mary Livers, secretary of the state Office of Juvenile Justice and president of the American Correctional Association, said Lafayette Parish is leading the charge to make those improvements.

“Everything that’s done here has implications around the state,” Livers said.

Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook, or contact her by phone at (337) 534-0825.