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Remarks of Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brent J. Cohen at the Congressional City Conference, “Building a Community-Centric Approach To Emergency Response Services,” Washington, DC

Thank you, Sonia [Chessen]. And thank you, Councilmember [Mark] Freeman. I’m grateful for the opportunity to be here today, and so pleased to join my federal colleagues.

I also want to give a shout-out to two of my colleagues from the Office of Justice Programs who are with me today: Mariel Lifshitz, who’s a senior advisor for behavioral health issues in OJP’s Office of the Assistant Attorney General; and Brooke Mount, a talented subject matter experts in our Bureau of Justice Assistance.

This conversation is one that my colleagues and I at OJP are eager to join. We’ve been working hard over the last three years to help improve the response to individuals experiencing behavioral health crises and to put communities at the center of that work. In fact, we are centering our mission on the idea that communities are co-producers of safety and justice and, in this case, health as well.

The justice system plays a central role in advancing community safety, but safety and justice demand the attention of stakeholders across the community, including—and especially—substance use and mental health professionals and those with lived experience.

Through a range of programs that I’ll touch on, we’re working to help drive reforms that promote community safety and well-being, focusing on having the right people providing the right response to achieve the best outcomes. Here we’re following the sequential intercept model that our partners at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration have been working so hard to promote.

We’re finding ways to meet individuals’ needs and divert to treatment where and when possible at every step along the criminal justice process, from the initial encounter with law enforcement to the courts through reentry.

One of our strategic objectives is expanding opportunities to safely divert people from justice system involvement into community-based interventions, including treatment for people with behavioral health disorders. We’ve made major investments in efforts to improve interactions between and outcomes for law enforcement officers when coming in contact with individuals in crisis.

Our programs focus on several strategies: de-escalating situations to avoid negative outcomes, increasing the involvement of non-law enforcement professionals in responding to calls involving people in crisis and deflecting individuals away from the justice system and toward treatment and other support services.

It’s critical, from the standpoint of both individual well-being and public safety, that we get the response to behavioral health crises right. Last year, we awarded more than $52 million through two of our signature programs, the Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Program and our Connect and Protect initiative, both of which are designed to help communities address the needs of individuals with mental health and co-occurring substance use conditions.

The Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Program has been a vehicle for advancing collaboration between justice and mental health partners for 18 years. This includes mental health courts, prosecutor-led initiatives, diversion programs and strategies to reduce backlogs in state hospitals, among other efforts.

Connect and Protect focuses on helping law enforcement and behavioral health professionals work together to improve police responses to people with behavioral health needs. Co-responder teams, homeless outreach efforts, mobile crisis response and crisis intervention teams—these are some of the approaches we’re supporting through Connect and Protect.

To give an example of the kind of work we’re funding, the city of Carrollton, Georgia, is working to expand and enhance a mobile crisis response team dispatched by the Carroll County 911 System. Grant funds are allowing them to hire a co-responder and a certified peer support specialist. They’re also helping them develop necessary procedures and policies, and supporting evaluation and community awareness activities.

Along those lines, we’re also working in partnership with SAMHSA to support local coordination efforts between law enforcement and 988 services. Our objective here is to make sure people in crisis are getting the help they need and that we’re avoiding the escalation that can occur when a uniformed officer is involved.

Under the Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Program, we support more than a dozen Law Enforcement-Mental Health Learning Sites. These are programs that have implemented successful response models and are able to deliver customized training and technical assistance to other jurisdictions. One of the sites is the Los Angeles Police Department, which has been very active in its work to dispatch mental health teams to 988 calls. 

OJP programs also focus on efforts going beyond the initial interaction with law enforcement to support the needs of people already involved in the justice system—individuals in the court or corrections system and people reentering their communities.

Last year, we launched two new efforts, one to help prosecutors connect people with mental health needs to community services, and another program that sets up peer-to-peer learning and mentoring sites to help communities establish court-based, jail-based, and reentry-based models.

On the corrections side, our Bureau of Justice Assistance manages a program called Building Bridges that tackles opioid use disorders in jails. This is a partnership between BJA, SAMHSA and the Drug Enforcement Administration that’s meant to get people the support they need in jail and make sure that support continues after release.

Finally, under the Second Chance Act, we’re providing substantial investments in reentry programs to help individuals get the treatment and services they need to make a successful return to their communities. Last year, we awarded $70 million in reentry grants.

One of those investments is a program called the Crisis Stabilization and Community Reentry initiative. The purpose here is to set up clinical and recovery support services for people with mental health, substance use and co-occurring disorders while they’re incarcerated, and then to ensure continuity of care on their release. We’ll be funding another round of grants this year, and our solicitation is currently out on the streets, closing at the end of April.

We’ll be building on these investments and expanding these models this year. The Department of Justice recently released its program plan for fiscal year 2024, which forecasts all of the grant funding opportunities that we expect to have available this year. In fact, our Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Program and Connect and Protect solicitations are open now through early May. I encourage everyone here to take a look and consider applying.

There will be more than 200 programs open for application, including another big one, our Comprehensive Opioid, Stimulant and Substance Use Program—COSSUP, as we call it. COSSUP supports cross-sector partnerships in responding to opioid and substance use issues, strategies like crisis intervention training and co-responder models. Last year, we awarded more than $130 million to 76 sites in 32 states.

We also have plans for several new programs, including efforts that focus on young people with substance use and mental health needs.

As you’ve heard, we’re focused on meeting the needs of both youth and adults in crisis at every intercept point in the justice system. And our goal is to do this not by delivering a criminal justice response, if it can be avoided, but by building community capacity to support people so that we can keep them out of the system, if at all possible. We believe this is the most sustainable path to safer and healthier communities, and it’s the right thing to do for people in crisis.

We’re encouraged by the great work being done in cities across the country, and we’re excited about where this work will lead.

Thank you.


Date Published: March 12, 2024