After multiple failed attempts to build a center that would keep the mentally ill out of the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, local officials are pivoting to a new, pared down version of the initiative to move the mentally ill and those with substance abuse problems from behind bars and into treatment.

Voters last year rejected a tax that would have funded the "Bridge Center," a new treatment facility where police and family members could bring mentally ill people suffering from breakdowns or caught committing petty crimes. Law enforcement and City Hall leaders have said for years that overcrowding in Parish Prison forces them to send 40 to 60 inmates a day to jails in other parishes, costing around $6 million each year. The idea is that some low-level offenders with mental health problems would be better off — and cost the city-parish less money — if they were in treatment instead of jail.

Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome is proposing to spend $260,000 in her 2018 budget on a pretrial diversion program that proponents hope could set the stage for later development of the Bridge Center. The program, started with a private grant, actually began a month ago, with a social worker and resource coordinator hired to work inside the jail. 

Those staffers try to determine when someone with a fresh arrest who cannot bond out of jail is suffering from mental illness or addiction problems. If so, they bring together the district attorney's office, public defender's office and a district court judge to decide whether to release the offender under the condition they go to treatment.

While the city-parish is putting up $260,000 to help pay the salaries of the social worker and resource coordinator, as well as some program costs, Broome's proposed 2018 budget says a savings of $800,000 is expected in return. Ideally, quickly moving those with mental illness and addictions out of jail will free up space and cut down on the cost of sending inmates to other jails.

"That's one of those interesting pieces and I think it's really a test," said Darryl Gissel, the chief administrative officer for Broome. "It's a matter of making sure it absolutely does work. We're going to have to monitor it going through. All the models show that it does work."

The pretrial pilot got off the ground in late September with a $50,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation. During its short existence, three people have been released from jail into long-term treatments lasting six to nine months, according to Bridge Center board chair Kathy Kliebert.

The goal, she said, is to move 50 people from the jail into treatment within the first year — basically one offender a week. The resource coordinator will be tasked with matching an offender to the right mental health or substance abuse treatment for his or her problems, and helping that person get on Medicaid or find other mechanisms to pay for the treatments. 

People who have been arrested for nonviolent misdemeanors are the focus of the program right now, though the East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney's office said they have also not excluded those who are arrested on more serious drug charges, like a heroin addict arrested with the drug. The DA's office is especially looking at those at high risk of killing themselves while in jail. 

Once the social worker and resource coordinator identify possible candidates for treatment, the District Attorney's office looks at their rap sheets, past calls for Emergency Medical Services and more to determine whether they meet the criteria for a diversion program. The counts that the mentally ill and substance abuse offenders are arrested on are often not ones that the DA's office would prosecute, District Attorney Hillar Moore III said.

There is a revolving door in the criminal justice system for the mentally ill obvious to people in the DA's office, said Moore. Defendants are arrested on a petty crime but can't make even a small bail, so they remain in jail. After prosecutors decide not to prosecute, the person is released, only to be arrested yet again, said Moore.

In addition, the city-parish has been hit with lawsuits over the past few years from people who say their mentally ill family members received inhumane treatment in the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, arguing the facility just isn't equipped to provide proper medical care.

"This program has the ability to address the root cause," said Jermaine Guillory, the assistant district attorney working with the initiative.

Guillory said it also frees up the criminal justice system to spend time on the more serious, violent offenders instead of loading up court dockets with petty crimes. And he said it changes the nature of the criminal justice system, as the prosecutor is no longer the adversary to the defendant and works with the public defender's office to decide whether they should be released into treatment.

Nineteenth Judicial District Judge Donald Johnson is the judge setting bond conditions to treatment programs. Johnson described how he has watched "societal ills" filter through the criminal justice system over the last two decades. He said he often feels more like a social worker than a judge.

Johnson likes to meet with the defendants before changing their bond conditions, telling them that yesterday is gone and that they can turn around their lives.

"I see a lot of defeat because the challenges people are facing, to them, can be overwhelming," he said, referencing his own struggles growing up during segregation in Baton Rouge. "I struggled through the same phenomenon that they do and I know you can make it."

Both Johnson and Moore said some risk is involved in all of the cases, but that finding a way to more humanely treat the mentally ill and addicted is worth it. Johnson said he will put out a warrant on anyone who flees treatment.

It's voluntary for those who have been arrested to decide whether to participate in substance abuse and mental health treatments rather than waiting in jail. Moore said those who choose treatment are usually those who actually want to get better. The easier path is for an offender to wait in jail, knowing they won't be prosecuted, and eventually will be released.

"This is the hard way out," said Moore, who is on the board of the Bridge Center. "But it's the way you become more successful."

Kliebert, Johnson and Moore are all hoping that the pilot program in the jail will be enough of a success to pave the way for a brick and mortar location with a mobile assessment team, like the proposal that voters rejected last year.

The Baton Rouge Area Foundation conceived the Bridge Center and created the nonprofit that runs it. BRAF referred questions for this story to Kliebert.

Moore hopes to eventually have a full-time assistant district attorney and assistant public defender spending their days reviewing the probable cause sheets of everyone who enters the prison and determining whether treatment is a more suitable venue for them.

And for his part, Johnson hopes to eventually create an entire behavioral health court system to handle drug, re-entry, domestic violence and other cases but said the city-parish needs proactive judges to do it.

Follow Andrea Gallo on Twitter, @aegallo.​