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CLAYTON, Mo. – The St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office is taking a new approach towards non-violent offenders who struggle with mental illness or substance abuse.

“We can’t incarcerate our way out of substance abuse; incarcerate our way out of mental health. We have to treat it,” said St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell.

He says it’s time for a fresh take since 1-in-5 Americans struggle with mental health.

“We know that close to 50 to 60 percent of those who come in contact with the justice system are in need of mental health care,” Bell said. “We know that 80 percent of those who come in contact with the justice system are in need of substance abuse.”

Often, education and poverty are also contributing factors.

“Just being able to provide individuals with a level playing ground, that’s what we’re asking for,” said Dr. Kendra Holmes.

She and other community partners are working with Bell to find alternatives to jail, where it costs roughly $25,000 a year to house an inmate.

“It provides medication therapy to people who have substance abuse disorders like opioid addiction or heroin addiction,” Holmes said. “We treat those patients on an outpatient basis and if you’re looking at the cost effectiveness of our program, it cost $3,500 a year to treat one individual with opioid addiction.”

In just four months, 20 people opted for the diversion program.

“We have decreased the prison population in just a little over three months by 12 percent,” Bell said. “The Justice Center is at its lowest since 2002. These are nonviolent, low-level offenders that now taxpayers aren’t paying for.”

Bell says it could save the county millions by the end of the year.

“Our attorneys can focus on more serious cases, officers can focus on more serious cases, and people who are in need and not a risk to the community in terms of danger to the community, are just getting the help they need to be full, productive members of society,” said Attorney Julia Fogelberg, who heads up this new diversion program.

“We are punishing people because they’re struggling with a disease.”

As a former public defender, she feels this is a better approach.

“We’re incarcerating people at extremely high rates and at an extremely high cost to St. Louis and Missouri residents,” she said. “Then people are coming out and they’re going to re-offend and go back because you never addressed the problem that brought them there in the first place.”

So far, she’s reached out to upwards of 200 people who are eligible. Most have been arrested for low-level crimes like drug possession, property damage, leaving the scene of an accident, or small theft.

Fogelberg says it’s on a case-by-case basis but the program looks for people who’ve not previously had a criminal past or have crimes that indicate illness.

“If somebody is in the program and they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing and they pick up another case, we can proceed with traditional prosecution, both for the new case and the one they’re in diversion for, so it actually also gives us a lot of flexibility,” she said.

Dr. Holmes says the substance abuse and behavioral health programs are mostly funded by grants, and there is little to no charge for the patient or the county.

If you think you may be eligible for the diversion program, you’re encouraged to contact the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.