The Bridge Center, a nonprofit, was formed to help East Baton Rouge Parish residents who are experiencing a mental health crisis.
People with mental illness in jails has been an increasing U.S. issue since the deinstitutionalization movement began in the 1950’s. The problem has worsened in Baton Rouge over the last 10 years due to a lack of community resources, the closure of several state hospitals, the closures of EKL’s Mental Health Emergency Room Extension and Baton Rouge General Mid City Emergence Department.
When people with mental health problems were picked up for nonviolent minor offenses, first responders were left with only two choices - expensive emergency rooms or parish prison.
In Baton Rouge, the prison had other problems. An incarceration rate among the world’s highest meant prisoners were packed together. It’s health care resources were stretched. Mentally ill people were suffering behind bars.
It was just too much and, as a consequence, five people with mental illness died in parish prison in 2013-2015. One of them was David O’Quin, whose father Bill O’Quin approached the Baton Rouge Area Foundation about starting a project to decriminalize mental illness.
Working with behavioral health officials and justice system leaders, The Foundation created The Bridge Center to provide an alternative.
The strategy: develop a safety net to catch people in crisis, keeping them out of emergency rooms and offering treatment at each point in the judiciary process. The Bridge Center started a pre-trial release program to show that treatment would reduce the jail population and save money. In less than a year, more than 25 people have been diverted to treatment, with about half of them in either therapy or returned to productive lives.