In Washtenaw County sheriff's race, candidates focus on mental health and substance abuse

Thursday, November 3, 2016 - 5:00pm

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Though the presidential election has drawn a lot of the focus on campus, local elections are ramping up in the building to Nov. 8 as well.

The Washtenaw County sheriff’s race between incumbent Sheriff Jerry Clayton (D), who has now served two four-year terms, and Ken Magee (R) will culminate with residents casting their votes on Election Day.

Clayton previously served in the sheriff’s office for 20 years prior to retiring in 2006. He served as the Washtenaw County Jail administrator, a corrections officer, a deputy sheriff and in several other law enforcement positions in the county.

Magee was a part of U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency for 24 years, where he worked on the Pablo Escobar case — a high-profile drug trafficking investigation — and served as a DEA unit chief in Washington, D.C. He also served as the University of Michigan police chief for three years before resigning in 2011 after a 12-month sick leave.

Addressing mental health and substance abuse in the county

Mental health and substance abuse are priorities for both candidates. Clayton has stated plans to sustain and expand current mental health-related programs, while Magee says he wants to target substance abuse and addiction with a new program. If elected, both candidates have prioritized addressing mental health issues in the community.

In an interview, Clayton said he plans to continue his office’s relationship with Washtenaw County Community Mental Health, a local government-affiliated group that provides services to those with mental disabilities.

The sheriff’s office currently collaborates with the WCCMH through the Community Mental Health Response Program. Staff members from both units co-teach a course to educate first responders on mental health crises and the appropriate way to act in such an event. Clayton said if elected, he will push to expand the initiative to other law enforcement agencies in the county.

He also said his team plans to continue working closely with other groups to improve mental health and engage the community through a variety of collective efforts.

“We’re working with a lot with of the mental health professionals and grassroots folks first, NAMI — National Alliance on Mental Illness — and the two health care systems, to really talk about a comprehensive approach for addressing mental health crises here in our county,” he said. “It’s a major initiative we will continue to work on.”

Speaking to reducing the fatal effects of substance abuse, Clayton said he plans to continue addressing the county’s opioid issue firsthand with naloxone — a medication that counters the effects of opioids in the event of an overdose — noting that the sheriff’s office was the first organization in the county to administer the medication.

“As far as the opioid issue, we’ve been leaders on that since last year,” he said. “We’re going to have our best efforts in our prevention, in education and supportive recovery. Our move toward naloxone is now giving them a tool that is proactive, and that has, quite frankly, saved lives.”

Clayton said 33 people are alive today and able to rejoin the community because of his staff’s appropriate administration of naloxone.

“They might not be ready, but when they are, they’re alive now and they have potential to be a contributing member of society,” he said.

Magee has similarily prioritized mental health during his campaign, viewing it in conjunction with substance abuse. Combating the local heroin epidemic has been at the forefront of his campaign, and he cited it as the number one public health and public safety crisis in the community.

If elected, Magee plans to institute a program he developed called PETER — Prevention, Enforcement, Treatment, Education and Recovery.

A large part of this initiative, according to Magee, is spreading awareness to the community about issues related to substance abuse.

“I want my deputies involved in the community from a preventative standpoint to prevent young people from even starting drugs, to really continue to get the word out there,” he said. “Every day, deputies on the street should be doing something, working with people and mentoring.”

Magee emphasized that enforcement extends beyond arrest, focusing on the importance of enforcing rules by way of “peer-to-peer pressure” within the family and within the substance abuse community.

He noted that those who commit crimes are not necessarily criminal, adding that low-level offenders often deserve to be helped and rehabilitated.

“When people are treated for mental health and substance abuse issues at the same time, we will have a much more successful rate of getting people away from the deadly disease of addiction,” he said.

Magee said he plans to dedicate his first year’s salary to drug treatment and prevention programs in the community.

Increasing restorative justice initiatives

The two candidates have also addressed issues surrounding incarceration in the community.

Clayton said another initiative the sheriff’s office aims to enhance is LEAD, Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion. Originally launched in King County, Wash., this program works to treat and support low-level offenders at the community level, according to its website.

Clayton said this program was created for offenders who do not pose a risk to the community, allowing them to avoid unnecessary jail time.

“Say they have some root cause issue like substance abuse, mental health issues, housing — all of those things,” he said. “It’s a harm reduction approach, where a person has the opportunity to enter that system and to get the kind of help to stabilize them — if they work through, say, an addiction or mental health issue — as opposed to going to jail.”

Also emphasizing the importance of restorative justice, Magee said in conjunction with PETER, plans to transform part of the jail into a recovery unit, pointing to this as a primary reason for his decision to run for office. He said more than 80 percent of all crime-related activity can be traced back to substance abuse issues.

“(The sheriff’s office) gives me the most widespread impact that I can have,” he said “... Having an impact right there at the jail with individuals, I can help institute programs, and I can help reduce the recidivism rate. I can have the biggest impact not only on people who are suffering from the illness of addiction, but also impact our community in many other ways.”