A white Jeep sits along Hwy 24 in Decatur on Saturday. Decatur Police ssaid the occupant stole the Jeep after a home invasion and fired on police before they returned fire, killing him.

Editorial: More mental health resources needed for justice system

Editor’s note: The following editorial ran in our sister-paper, The Decatur Daily, about how a fatal police shootout this past weekend in Decatur may have its roots in the state’s mental health crisis. While it specifically highlights the situation in Morgan County, it addresses an important issue every part of the state is struggling with right now.

Madison County certainly has experienced its own share of tragic mental health-related situations. Fortunately, Madison County Probate Judge Frank Barger has made some local efforts since taking office to better help those who suffer from mental illness. Still, too many people are falling through the cracks and families are left with very little hope, especially with situations similar to what led up to Saturday’s incident in Decatur. 

 

A Decatur man who died this past weekend in a shootout with police was already in the state’s criminal justice system.

According to Kimberly Thurston, director of Morgan County Community Corrections, Nicholas Edward Oden, 33, was serving concurrent state sentences for manufacturing a controlled substance and first-degree theft. He had also missed multiple meetings with officials about his participation in the Morgan County Community Corrections program. He first failed to appear for his initial community corrections processing date on Dec. 17. Then he missed a a community corrections revocation hearing last week.

Community Corrections, like the Morgan County Drug Court, are programs meant to help alleviate the load on the state’s overburdened court system. They are also meant to help keep offenders out of the state’s overcrowded prison system, which faces federal intervention because of inhumane conditions.

Community Corrections and Drug Court are successful programs that help reduce recidivism and keep offenders from returning to the criminal justice system. But they cannot be expected to solve the state’s mental health problems, and Oden’s unfortunate case, at this point, appears to involve a mental health failing.

According to police, before Saturday’s fatal confrontation, Oden was a suspect in an early morning home invasion robbery, during which Oden shot the homeowner before stealing the white Jeep he would drive later in the day when he led police on a chase.

Before the chase, Oden stopped Saturday morning at the Morgan Center event center off the Beltline, where he confronted people there preparing for a party later in the day. Those people called police, and one of them described to The Daily a man seemingly in the throes of a mental health crisis.

Police are too often the first responders when people are experiencing a mental health crisis. While the state has handed out some grants to improve officer training for such events, and while local departments have taken steps of their own to assist officers in dealing with people having mental issues, law enforcement agencies are not the ideal group for dealing with mental health emergencies.

By this weekend, events may have gotten to a point where there was little anyone could do to reach a better outcome. Perhaps we should all simply be grateful no one else was killed. But these events do make us wonder what could have been done differently in the preceding weeks and months.

The $2.7 billion General Fund budget approved by the Alabama House of Representatives on Tuesday provides additional funding for the Alabama Department of Mental Health for the construction of community mental health centers and the implementation of crisis intervention training programs to improve the state’s mental health services.

State leaders know Alabama has a mental health crisis, and they are finally devoting more resources to addressing it. But this is just a start, and it’s not simply a matter of more resources. It also matters how those resources are deployed, and the events of the past weekend indicate there is a need for formal lines of communication between community corrections and mental health professionals.

The U.S. Justice Department has cited the poor state of mental health care inside Alabama’s prisons. There is no reason to think the mental health of offenders serving sentences outside of prison is much better. That is also a problem the state must address.

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