'State needs to stop criminalizing behavioral health'

Aug 24, 2018

The director of Behavioral Health for the stte dept. of Human Services, Pam Sagness, testifies before the interim Justice Reinvestment Committee.
Credit Dave Thompson / Prairie Public

Behavioral health professionals say North Dakota is on the right path to get those services to people that need them.

But they say the state has a way to go.

The Legislature’s interim Justice Reinvestment Committee heard from representatives of the state Department of Corrections and from Human Services about treatment – how it works and what the needs are.

The director of Human Services’ Behavioral Health Division said the number one priority is to develop more community based services. Pam Sagness told the Committee the state also needs to stop criminalizing behavioral health. A recent report confirmed anecdotal evidence that judges were sending people to jail so they could get treatment.

"When we look for a charge in order for them to have a safe place to go, instead of recognizing they may have a behavioral health problem, we are just furthering them in the criminal justice system," Sagness told the Committee. "We need to focus on what the gaps in treatment are."

Sagness said one area of need is in crisis management.

"These services don't exist in our state right now," Sagness said. "And when those services don't exist, the jails and law enforcement end up being the point of contact, which means we have another connection to the criminal justice system instead of getting access to services."

The 2017 Legislature approved $7 million from the Corrections budget for people with behavioral health needs to get treatment in the community. Sagness told the Committee the two departments are working on recommendations for the 2019 Legislature. And she said a consultant has been hired to help the state’s progress on meeting its treatment goals.