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Blake Arcuri, general counsel for the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, stands next to Lt. Terry Braun outside the Temporary Detention Center at the Orleans Parish jail in New Orleans on Friday, February 8, 2019.

The New Orleans City Council should vote to uphold the unanimous decision by the City Planning Committee and deny expanding the New Orleans jail to permanently criminalize people living with serious mental illnesses.

New Orleans has demonstrated significant progress over the years in reducing its jail population in the name of progressive reform, yet as the city of yes, the city of love, the city of resistance, the city of justice, the city of righteousness, we are falling behind other cities and states as it pertains to therapeutic alternatives to incarceration for vulnerable populations.

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East Baton Rouge Parish and Los Angeles, Albany, Maricopa, Bexar and Dade Counties are all at different stages of implementing more humane and economically prudent solutions than mental health jails. Likewise, New Orleans needs a facility to accommodate people living with serious mental illnesses that is administered by mental health professionals, not the sheriff or the criminal justice system that was never designed to care for them.

The city has been presented with a rare opportunity to right the wrongs of decades-long mass incarceration of people living with serious mental illnesses by investing FEMA dollars, meant for public safety facilities, in crisis stabilization services and secured on-site support housing in the public health system, where it always belonged.

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Rather than rebuilding a system that hurt so many and benefited only the sheriff, we can build a system that saves lives and dollars. The Restoration Center in Bexar County, a national model, has diverted tens of thousands of Bexar County residents into treatment programs, with no less than 60,000 individual contacts, saving taxpayers more than $50 million dollars.

Because the jail is under federal consent decree, a decision must be made to address those with serious mental illness whom we presently institutionalize in our jail. That decision should be to minimally retrofit the present jail and to once and for all end the folly of building a massive new “mental health jail” next door to our already over-sized, almost-new jail.

People living with serious mental illnesses should not be made to suffer tragic consequences due to the failures of local and state governments to plan and finance a full continuum of community psychiatric care.

There is no return on investment when ERs, hospitals, jails, courts, police and the mental health department keep treating the same people who are cycling through these systems over and over again and not getting better. It’s time to stop kicking the can down the road. The City Council needs to demonstrate leadership on this critical human rights issue, not capitulate to the singular solution presented by the corrections system.

Debi Davies

mental illness patient advocate

New Orleans