This past semester I began working at the Walla Walla County Department of Community Health on the Data-Driven Justice Initiative. The DDJI is a nationwide project that organizes state, county and local governments to reduce the number of low-level offenders with mental illness in jails. The project seeks to divert these people from jail and connect them with housing, mental health care, and other social services.
The program has its fiscal incentives in that if governments can link these people with housing and care, they are much less likely to end up in jail or the emergency room, two systems that cost an incredible amount. A day in in the WW County jail alone costs around 72 dollars to house an inmate. Instead, this money can be spent on better services, treatment and housing for people with mental illness, a group of people that faces incredibly high rates of substance abuse and homelessness.
Above all, the main incentive is to better serve people with mental illness in Walla Walla. The Walla Walla Data-Driven Justice Team includes corrections officials, law enforcement officers, hospital staff, mental health care providers and community health administrators, all of whom are participating because they realize that imprisoning people with mental illness for misdemeanors, inability to pay fines, or homelessness is detrimental to their welfare.
This is a new project for Walla Walla and so my tasks have been adapting to the needs of the project. We are currently in the advanced planning stages of the project but getting here has required a lot of self-guidance for the county. I’ve been doing research on HIPAA and diversion strategies, while also analyzing what other counties have done. Right now we are also working on creating a data set that analyzes arrests in order to understand what people are being arrested for and the demographics of those arrested. In these projects I’ve gotten to tour the county jail, meet a lot of really passionate people, and go to the festive county holiday party.
I think it’s worth mentioning that the DDJI was an Obama Administration project and that one of its main coordinators from the White House was Whitman graduate, Kayvon Behroozian ’14. Kayvon was one of the seniors I really looked up to as a first-year and it was pretty amazing to hear him leading the biweekly national conference calls from the White House. However, with the change in administration, the project is now not connected to the White House and is instead fully run by the National Association of Counties and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.
When we study government and politics in my classes, we look at areas like the Supreme Court, presidential elections, federal policy, healthcare and wars. There’s often little to no discussion about local government. I think I’ve grown to value and only be interested in national government and I think many Americans have too. While the White House did help start the program, the real change is occurring outside the scope of the federal government. It is the communities that are organizing partners, finding funding and making the necessary changes to help their most vulnerable citizens. My internship has made me see that no matter what tumultuous thing is happening in the Oval Office, local organizations and government will keep doing their best to serve their community.
Thanks to Walla Walla County and the head of Human Services, Debbie Dumont, for this wonderful opportunity! Also, thank you Whitman and its Student Engagement Center (SEC) for providing me with a financial stipend and for letting me use a bike from the Whitman Bike Share program to bike to the office, even after I popped a tire.