New Website Helps Improve Coordination between Justice and Health Systems

People involved in the criminal justice system have significantly higher rates of behavioral and physical health problems than the general population. For example, the rate of serious mental illness among incarcerated persons is estimated to be more than three times higher than in the general population. Adding to these challenges is the fact that these persons and others involved in justice systems have limited access to healthcare both inside facilities and in the communities to which they are released. A historical lack of coordination between justice and health agencies exacerbates these issues even further. Consequently, people with drug and alcohol use disorders, mental illness, and other chronic diseases routinely fail to get the treatment that they need. Research shows that increasing access to treatment can address health disparities, reduce costs, and lower re-arrest rates.

To help close this communication gap, and increase information sharing between justice and health authorities, The Vera Institute of Justice’s Substance Use and Mental Health Program (SUMH) today launched the Justice and Health Connect (JH Connect) website. This initiative was made possible with support from the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), which promotes information sharing solutions for state, local, and tribal authorities. To that end, JH Connect provides a series of resources, with the aim of increasing agencies’ abilities to share data between community health and justice systems in a confidential, legal, and ethical way. The goal is to better serve people with behavioral and other health needs who come into contact with justice systems.

SUMH director Jim Parsons stresses the tangible benefits of information sharing in an era of tight budgets. “Government agencies need to maximize the use of scarce resources,” Parsons said. “Many jurisdictions recognize the potential for data-sharing to improve services, enhance individual outcomes, and reduce duplication of effort for this vulnerable population. However, a lack of information on ways to overcome barriers to information sharing means that the examples of successful initiatives are few and far between. With the planned expansion of healthcare as part of the Affordable Care Act, this is an essential time to develop ways to engage vulnerable populations in treatment services.”

Among the features of the site are a series of “myth-busters” that dispel common misperceptions and provide tools to address such issues as:

  • How legal regulations such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) do not always prevent clinicians and public health agencies from sharing personal health information with criminal justice agencies.
  • How small jurisdictions can access affordable data systems or the technology needed to conduct information sharing.
  • How community health providers can share information with justice providers in ways that adequately protect patient privacy, preserve clinician-patient trust, and minimize adverse consequences.

The website features a wide range of practical materials, including a toolkit for designing information sharing initiatives, an extensive resource library, policy briefs, legal memos, templates, and webinars. These resources offer guidance on the type of data exchanges that are legally permissible, outline their potential ethical pitfalls, and highlight promising practices that maximize benefits to clients while reducing costs. The site is a repository for existing resources and guidelines based on case studies of promising initiatives and guidance from experts in the field. These materials are designed for diverse audiences and jurisdictions with the goal of better serving the justice population that has behavioral and other healthcare needs.

Vera’s Substance Use and Mental Health Program (SUMH) conducts applied research to help public officials and community organizations develop empirically driven responses to the substance use and mental health needs of people involved in justice systems. SUMH staff collect and analyze quantitative and qualitative data and evaluate existing programs to understand the experiences of those affected by psychiatric disorders or substance use and policies that prolong their involvement in the justice system.