Governor’s Budget Would Expand Services To Offenders With Mental Health Needs

Gov. Tony Evers’ budget would expand a program that helps offenders with significant mental health issues after they’re released from prison. The program — called Opening Avenues to Reentry Success, or OARS — would be offered in all 72 counties. Right now, there are 44 counties utilizing the program.

The program, which is a joint partnership between the Wisconsin Department of Corrections and Wisconsin Department of Health Services, aims to improve public safety by reducing recidivism among those with major mental health conditions who are considered at moderate or high risk of re-offending.

There were 306 offenders who opted to take part in the voluntary program in the 2018 fiscal year.

DOC Secretary Kevin Carr said the governor’s 2019-21 budget includes just under $4 millioneach year for the program, which would allow an additional 225 people to participate. The budget would also fund one position at DHS as part of the expansion.

“This is the type of program that I strongly support, and I believe that not only for those that have serious mental health conditions,” said Carr. “We can do a variation of this program that would apply to almost any person in our care that’s being released to the community.”

DHS administers the program and contracts with five agencies across the state to provide case management for those enrolled in OARS.

Katie Martinez, the forensic mental health section chief at DHS, said clients may struggle with substance use disorders, schizophrenia or other psychological conditions.

“What we hope for people who are in OARS is that through participation in the program that they learn how to self-advocate, that they can leave OARS in a good position to stay out of jail and remain stable,” Martinez said.

team of people working in the program connect participants with resources like educational programs, jobs, treatment and affordable housing for up to two years. Martinez said participants may be able to move in with family and friends once they’re no longer incarcerated. But, she said they offer assistance with housing because it’s often a barrier to those transitioning back into society, and homelessness is a stressor that can exacerbate mental illness. In addition, Martinez said they connect individuals with treatment catered to their individual needs.

“That could be psychiatry with medication or without medication, the psychology like a psychologist, therapy for whatever the individual either wants or the treatment team has identified as a need,” Martinez said.

She added those who take part in the program often have lower rates of re-offending than those who are not enrolled. Participants had a 31 percent recidivism rate out of 269 people enrolled over a three-year period compared to 35 percent of 548 people who did not take part in the program, according to data from the DOC.

Bayfield County Administrator Mark Abeles-Allison has been lobbying the state to expand the program up north.

“It offers intensive supervision. It offers alcohol and drug use monitoring,” Abeles-Allison said. “Then, it kind of tapers that down … It’s a good program to help somebody get off on the right foot.”

Abeles-Allison said the assistance provided under the program to access resources is sorely needed in rural northern Wisconsin, which can struggle with issues like access to transportation and treatment.

“Even if you live in one of our cities, some of our more populated areas do not have treatment programs or treatment providers,” he said. “I think just the ruralness of northern Wisconsin makes it even more important for this Department of Health/Department of Corrections cooperative program to be expanded into our region.”

Carr said the department recognizes that northern counties like Douglas, Iron, Barron and Vilas counties don’t currently have access to services through the program.

“Our position here at DOC is that the availability of programs is an equity issue and that all 72 counties should have access to this program,” Carr said.

March 5, 2019
By Danielle Kaeding
Wisconsin Public Radio