Safety Center Task Force Will Draw Up a Request for Proposals

The Knoxville-Knox County Safety Center Task force met again last Thursday, and have decided to put together a request for proposals to build and operate the proposed safety center that would allow nonviolent offenders with mental illness and/or substance abuse issues to be diverted away from jail.

At the task force's July meeting, members requested some data on how many people booked in local jails would be eligible to go to a proposed safety center instead, where they would be treated for substance abuse, and any mental health issues they might have. This month, the numbers were in.

Between Sept. 20 and Oct. 22, 186 people were booked by Knox County Sheriff's deputies, Knoxville Police officers, highway patrol officers, and UT police who also met these criteria: They had a mental illness or substance abuse issue, had not been arrested for a violent crime (and had not acted violent when arrested), had no outstanding warrants, and were not on probation. That criteria was decided upon during the July meeting.

Most of the people booked were out of jail within 24 hours (90 people), 69 were out within one to three days, 14 people were out within four to seven days, and only 13 people spent more than a week in jail. The longest anyone was in jail was for 28 days. Task force member and General Sessions Criminal Judge Patricia Long said those in jail for longer than a week likely got a lawyer.

Between Oct. 24 and Nov. 7, 58 more people were booked and met the criteria. The arresting officer was then asked if he or she would recommend the person arrested be diverted to a safety center program instead of jail if the option was available. About 75 percent of those arrested would've been diverted based on officers' recommendations.

"Frankly, [that's] a little bit higher number than I thought it would've been," said Richard Major, the general sessions chief magistrate.

"I think that indicates officer buy-in, also. Which is something that we need for this to work," Sheriff Jimmy "J.J." Jones added.

"If there had been significant on-the-ground officer resistance, this would be the perfect time to demonstrate it. And the numbers just don't support that," Major said.

As Major pointed out, these numbers are "very conservative," and Long mentioned that including offenders who did not commit a violent crime but lashed out at officers would increase the number of people who would otherwise meet the criteria set for this data set.

The group also talked about who would operate the safety center and how much it would cost. Sheriff Jones said he's spoken with Andy Black, the CEO of the Helen Ross McNabb Center. Jones said Black assured him he would be able to get grants of about $500,000 for each of three years to spend on the day-to-day operation expenses of the safety center.

"That's a commitment of three years," Jones reiterated.

The task force agreed that they should evaluate the statistics and efficacy of the safety center after three years.

The McNabb Center and Black have consistently been involved in the safety center conversation, which a few task force members pointed out. But the project will still require a request for proposals, which will take a couple months to prepare.