Friday, April 19, 2024

114 West Elm Street
Graham, NC 27253
Ph: 336.228.7851

Caution, thoroughness needed in evaluating diversion center concept


We note that the county’s commissioners are going to resume their discussion about establishing a so-called diversion center during a work session now set for Friday.

We think a cautious, methodical approach is needed before the county commits to millions of dollars of construction, much less the millions more in operating expenses, in addition to the salaries and benefits for new employees who will be needed to oversee it.

The idea is that too many people whose problems are really mental health-related are incarcerated in the county jail. If only they could be “diverted” to some sort of alternative center, the theory goes, the county wouldn’t have to expend so many resources on keeping people jailed whose real need is mental health treatment.

Hence, the sheriff has been one of the biggest advocates for finding an alternative so that his jailers don’t have to babysit people whose crimes generally stem from alcohol or drug addictions, failure to take their medications, or otherwise really need medical/mental help.

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Many treatment programs consistently deal with these twin problems: various addictions and a patient’s unwillingness to take, or stay on, medications to help their condition.

We’re sympathetic to the desire to seek an alternative approach – treatment for their underlying situation, rather than simply locking them up for their involvement in some criminal enterprise.

But we’re very unsure whether a multi-million diversion center – even if initially paid for with “Covid” money, or other “free” money – will have the desired impact.

This approach, while not untried, does not have a very long or wide track record. Some large North Carolina counties – Guilford, Durham, and Buncombe – have been cited, but it seems to us quite a leap to think that a county of considerably smaller size, such as Alamance, should join them at this point.

Commissioners should delve into the details at existing diversion centers across the state. Have they, in fact, been successful – whether at reducing their respective jail numbers, or by any other measures?

Our greatest concern is that the “diversion center” would become little more than a small auxiliary jail – the center cannot have more than 16 beds, lest it be considered a hospital – but without the security safeguards of the real jail.

We worry that people could leave the center, even if they’re not supposed to, and commit more crimes, potentially very serious ones – before they can be captured and re-directed for treatment.

We’re also skeptical that, when the federal and state governments consistently have been unable to handle or adequately direct the mental health system to handle existing problems, little ‘ole Alamance County can somehow figure them out with a diversion center or program.

Additionally, we cannot help but wonder if the policy amounts to just another layer – or a gigantic expansion of – the county’s health department and department of social services, not including five Medicaid-affiliated health plans which also provide similar services.

There are already oodles of local programs, ostensibly addressing mental health – some in the health department, some at DSS. Do we really need another one?

We urge commissioners to be thorough in their research and cautious about committing the county to a long-term investment without some greater assurance that the approach can actually be successful – and affordable – in the long term.

See story on earlier discussion among commissioners about the diversion center:

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