If you want to talk about big savings in local government, it’s going to involve a decision that businesses face all the time: It’s going to cost money to save money.
The costs involve more effective treatment of mental illness. The savings come from money and time spent on law enforcement and other services.
Both Lafayette and Baton Rouge are working toward progressive solutions to the problems of mental illness and the resultant homelessness and vagrancy that engages the time and attention of police officers and deputies.
At least one expert, Stephen Goldsmith, said East Baton Rouge Parish could cut its law enforcement costs by at least 20 percent by establishing a new mental health facility and a smaller but more efficient prison.
Goldsmith is not just another consultant but is a highly respected voice in urban policy in the nation, as a former district attorney and mayor of Indianapolis. It was a smart move by the chairman of the Metro Council, Mayor Pro Tem Chandler Loupe, to facilitate Goldsmith’s meetings with local officials.
Laying aside the seemingly endless fracases between Mayor-President Kip Holden and the Metro Council, there seems, to us, to be a lot of common ground that can be found on this issue.
As in Lafayette, where dealing with the homeless in downtown parks has sparked discussion of new public-private partnerships, the costs of people wandering the streets off their meds is now hidden in other public budgets or pushed onto nonprofits like Catholic Services.
In both Louisiana communities, the often-related issues of homelessness and mental instability are forcing new thinking about how to respond to the challenges.
In Lafayette, the discussion is about how to house the homeless so the underlying issue of addiction or mental disability can be addressed. “Sure enough, research shows it works,” said Leigh Petersen Rachal, director of St. Joseph Diner and the Stella Maris Center with Catholic Services of Acadiana.
In Baton Rouge, Holden has correctly backed the idea of a first-response center that will take people off the streets for analysis of their problems and treatment.
Those same folks will otherwise continue to clog not only the prison but emergency rooms. Police on the beat will tell you that many of those taking up their time at night are repeat offenders. It’s long past time that police have an option instead of jail, particularly for offenders with whom they are on a first-name basis.
The Baton Rouge Area Foundation assembled a group of experts that will report April 27 on what shape a “restoration center” could take in the city.
Yet if there are savings to be had in law enforcement and in emergency rooms, there will be costs for these new arrangements. We agree with William Daniel, the city’s chief administrator: A new plan would “still require money over and above what we can currently afford.” The savings would be down the road, but as Goldsmith said, they could be substantial.
We are glad that so many people are taking such a close look at new ideas, and we’re confident that common ground can be found for a solution — or, more likely, a set of solutions.