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UMD Researchers Bolster New State Center for Behavioral Health and Public Safety

By Bianca Bersani, Meghan Kozerra and Ted Knight

Researchers from the Maryland Crime Research and Innovation Center (MCRIC) at the University of Maryland (UMD) have developed a strategic plan for a new center that will serve as a hub for the state to improve access to behavioral health care and reduce engagement with the criminal justice system.

Leveraging expertise from UMD’s Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice and the Center for Substance Abuse Research (CESAR), the MCRIC team’s multi-year plan outlines goals and action steps that provide a roadmap for the Maryland Behavioral Health and Public Safety Center of Excellence, part of the Governor’s Office of Crime Prevention, Youth, and Victim Services.

“This is an exciting opportunity for the state and positions Maryland as a leader in the effort to address the behavioral health and public safety challenge that faces the nation,” said MCRIC Director and Associate Professor Bianca Bersani, the project lead. “The partnership with the University of Maryland demonstrates that the Center of Excellence is keen to leverage evidence-based information to drive actions and decision making.”

Nearly half of incarcerated individuals have a history of a behavioral health disorder. In Maryland, a 2016 report found that nearly 40% of people in jail had a mental health disorder, with 25% meeting the definition of serious mental illness, and more than two-thirds had a substance use disorder. People with behavioral health needs often have recurrent and frequent interaction with public safety and health care systems and are more likely to experience police aggression during encounters with law enforcement.

The strategic plan developed by MCRIC incorporates insights from interviews with Maryland public safety and behavioral health stakeholders, local and national research scholars, and experts from similarly motivated centers, as well as other recommendations. It equips the center to carry out three critical roles: technical assistance and training; centralized communication; and data, research and evaluation.

“This plan is a critical step forward in our efforts to increase treatment and reduce the detention of individuals with mental and behavioral health disorders,” said James Rhoden, assistant director for the center. “Our Center of Excellence will help us connect the dots on how these individuals are represented in the criminal justice system and ensure that they receive the care and support they need.”

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