‘Stepping Up’ Diversion Work for Mental Illness Earns Dauphin County National ‘Innovator County’ Recognition
A Dauphin County diversion initiative recently earned national accreditation – and county commissioners and officials say the program is just getting started.
Dauphin County’s “Stepping Up” program is aimed at diverting people with mental illness into treatment rather than criminal charges, prosecution, and incarceration.
The Dauphin County Board of Commissioners-supported program involves Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) for officers and co-responders who accompany police to incidents involving behavioral health needs.
“I can state with certainty that punishment is not the answer for everyone,” Dauphin County District Attorney Fran Chardo said, referring to his 27 years as a prosecutor.
The overall goals of Stepping Up are limiting prison exposure for people with mental illness and prioritizing treatment-based response.
In 2020, police referred about 400 people to treatment/services – only about 10 percent were ultimately charged with criminal offenses.
Assessments and screenings are also done at the Dauphin County Judicial Center during the intake process following arrests. About 3,000 such screenings were done in 2020.
Dauphin County recently was accredited as an “Innovator County” – one of 28 counties in the United States to be honored.
County officials and local police departments spoke of the program at the Board of Commissioners’ April 7 public meeting, crediting the commissioners for supporting the program since its development started here in 2016.
The program, coordinated by Dr. Ashley Yinger (a criminal justice program administrator for the DA’s Office), has expanded to now equip 121 police, probation, and corrections officers with Crisis Intervention Training: a battery of techniques for de-escalation and active listening.
“Lives will be saved by this Stepping Up initiative,” Susquehanna Township police Chief Robert Martin said.
Lanette Jones said her relative, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, has had a number of contacts with police over the years, and found interactions with Harrisburg police – which recently trained 20 additional CIT officers – to be most helpful.
“They treated him with respect. They de-escalated the situation,” Jones told the commissioners. “He probably would be in jail facing some serious time, or dead, if that training wasn’t there.”
Harrisburg police Deputy Chief Dennis Sorensen said the CIT training was some of the best he has received in his 27 years as a cop.
“The program works – it works for our officers, and it works for our citizens,” he told the commissioners, thanking them for the county’s backing.
County Commissioner Chair Jeff Haste said, “It is the boots on the ground that make it work.”
“Our (police) departments have been open minded,” Commissioner Chair Haste said. “Those in blue are truly saving lives.”
County Commissioner George P. Hartwick III brought the program to the board for consideration years ago.
“This has been heavy lifting, and we will keep up with this,” Commissioner Hartwick said.
County Commissioner Mike Pries told the Stepping Up team, “You are the best of the best. We are so blessed to have you in Dauphin County.”
There are seven co-responders in the county who stay on police calls to provide individual assessment and resources, allowing police to move on to the next call and continue protecting the public.
“Law enforcement can focus more on the truly dangerous: career criminals and violent felons,” District Attorney Chardo said.
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