Supervisor’s Office

Polk County Participating in White House Criminal Justice Initiative

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Polk County Participating in White House Data Driven Justice Initiative


“[O]ur criminal justice system isn’t as smart as it should be.  It’s not keeping us as safe as it should be.  It is not as fair as it should be.  Mass incarceration makes our country worse off, and we need to do something about it.” – President Barack Obama, July 14, 2015

 Des Moines, IA - Every year, more than 11 million people move through America’s 3,100 local jails, many on low-level, non-violent misdemeanors, costing local governments approximately $22 billion a year.  In local jails, 64 percent of people suffer from mental illness, 68 percent have a substance abuse disorder, and 44 percent suffer from chronic health problems.  Communities across the country have recognized that a relatively small number of these highly-vulnerable people cycle repeatedly not just through local jails, but also hospital emergency rooms, shelters, and other public systems, receiving fragmented and uncoordinated care at great cost to American taxpayers, with poor outcomes. 

Here in Polk County we have an average of 930 individuals in the Polk County Jail per day and it is estimated that 43 percent of them suffer from mental health disorders. However, the mental health data is self reported so the number of individuals suffering from mental health disorders is most likely closer to the national data quoted above.

To break the cycle of incarceration, the White House Administration is launching the Data-Driven Justice Initiative (DDJ) with a bipartisan coalition of 67 city, county, and state governments who have committed to using data-driven strategies to divert low-level offenders with mental illness out of the criminal justice system and change approaches to pre-trial incarceration, so that low-risk offenders no longer stay in jail simply because they cannot afford a bond.  Polk County Health Services has been participating in weekly calls with participating jurisdictions and the White House to help establish best practices.

The DDJ communities will implement the following strategies that have proven to be effective in reducing unnecessary incarceration in jails: 

  • Use data to identify and proactively break the cycle of incarceration.  DDJ communities will bring data together from across criminal justice and health systems to identify the individuals with the highest number of contacts with police, ambulance, emergency departments, and other services, and link them to health, behavioral health, and social services in the community, with a goal of reducing overreliance on emergency healthcare and encounters with the criminal justice system.  Polk County has developed a data system that they are sharing with all providers that helps with identifying individuals who are linked with the support services in the community, but is also identifying individuals that need more supports to help reduce emergency room visits or encounters with criminal justice system.     
  • Equip law enforcement and first responders with the tools they need to respond and divert.  Recognizing that police officers, emergency medical technicians (EMTs), and firefighters are often front-line responders to people experiencing mental health crises, DDJ communities will create systems and protocols to help effectively de-escalate crisis situations and safely divert people to the appropriate service providers instead of arresting them.  The Des Moines Police Department currently provides 40 hours of Critical Intervention Team training (CIT) for new police recruits. Polk County is in the process of developing a plan to expand CIT training.  Therapeutic alternatives to incarceration have been developed within the community to divert individuals in a mental health crisis from jail.  The Mobile Crisis Team is available if the police encounter an individual/family experiencing a mental health crisis.  The Crisis Observation Center is open at all times for individuals in crisis who are in need of support but do not need hospitalization. 
  • Use data-driven, validated, pre-trial risk assessment tools to inform pre-trial release decisions.  DDJ communities will work towards using objective, data-driven, validated risk-assessment tools to identify low-risk defendants held in jail and identify opportunities for their safe release. Polk County is currently in the process of trying to become a pilot site for a Public Safety Pretrial Risk Assessment tool that has been created by the Lori and John Arnold Foundation. Research is clear that the more time spent in jail, even if later found innocent during trial, the more likely it is for that person to commit another crime. A validated risk assessment will help to better predict what risks defendants pose to the community if they are released so that supervision strategies can be developed by community based pretrial programs to mitigate the risks.  Conversely, the risk tool will also help identify those high risk cases that should not be released.

Polk County Health Services was invited to participate in this White House initiative because they have set a high standard of care for mental health services in Polk County. They have extensive experience in behavioral health, homeless outreach, crisis triage, jail diversion and data sharing. Their work is magnified through the collaboration of all criminal justice agencies in Polk County who are committed to improving the criminal justice system.

For more information about the data driven justice initiative and mental health problems in our jails read this article:




Contact Us

Polk County Administration Building
111 Court Avenue, Room 300
Des Moines, IA 50309

Phone: (515) 286-3120
FAX: (515) 323-5225