Institute’s Yolanda Lewis discusses transforming the culture of crisis response at Chicago Bar Association
topics Announcements ‘A Crisis is not a Crime’

‘A Crisis is not a Crime’

Meadows Institute’s Yolanda Lewis discusses transforming the culture of crisis response at Chicago Bar Association

It’s no secret that the criminal justice system disproportionally affects people with mental illness.

One in 10 Dallas County inmates are in jail solely because they suffer from mental illness, Meadows Institute President and CEO Andy Keller told the Dallas Morning News in 2016. These are largely poor people who don’t need to be incarcerated, Keller said. “It’s wrong. The injustice of what happens to these individuals on a daily basis is overwhelming.”

A leading priority of the Meadows Institute’s Center for Justice and Health is transforming the culture of crisis response, which seeks to develop, deploy, test and expand 911 crisis response to ensure that mental health crises can be safely and swiftly intercepted at the point of call, vastly reducing the likelihood of arrest and incarceration.

Addressing the Chicago Bar Association on Jan. 17, Executive Vice President for Justice and Health Yolanda Lewis explained how the center’s Person-Centered Triage Approach does just that: lowering arrest and use-of-force rates by expanding the ability of call center professionals to more accurately gauge the needs and preferences of callers to prioritize a care-forward response, thereby restoring relationships between law enforcement and local communities. “We don’t believe a crisis is a crime and a call for help isn’t naturally a state of conflict.” Lewis said.

“We don’t believe a crisis is a crime and a call for help isn’t naturally a state of conflict.” Yolanda Lewis

A mediation-based strategy, Person-Centered Triage Approach was developed in conjunction with local jurisdictions to better respond to mental health crisis calls and improve outcomes for people experiencing mental health emergencies.

Lewis gave her remarks as part of a continuing legal education seminar titled “Advancing Social Justice Initiatives Through Alternative Dispute Resolution,” hosted by the American Arbitration Association, the AAA-ICDR Foundation and the Chicago Bar Association. Last year, a generous grant from the AAA-ICDR Foundation helped to create a Person-Centered Triage Approach National Collaborative to transform mental health crisis response in 911 call centers. “The work we are doing aligns perfectly with the foundation’s goal to give people voice and choice as they navigate their mental health concerns,” Lewis said.

Lewis pointed to Austin, Texas as an exemplar of this innovative approach. In addition to the standard menu of police, fire or EMS, callers to 911 there receive a “fourth option” for mental health. “When a mental health call is identified, it slows the process down and the call taker can assess what type of resource would best fit the situation, to deescalate, as opposed to deploying police, which may not fit the situation.”

In doing so, Person-Centered Triage Approach “makes people experts in their own crises,” Lewis said. “From speaking to people with lived experience, we learned they wish they had a voice. They have insight into what they need to access care.”

Added Lewis: “We have to meet people where they are, respond and naturally pivot to what they need help with.”