Community Portrait: Commissioner Janet Thompson

This Community Portrait is the first in a series highlighting individuals who are championing cross-systems collaboration and data sharing within their jurisdictions to respond to the needs of frequent utilizers of justice, health and human services systems.

Janet Thompson was first elected as Commissioner for District 2 in Boone County, Mo., in 2012. Commissioner Thompson is a fierce advocate for the residents of Boone County and is passionate about issues related to justice and advancing the health and well-being of county citizens, particularly children and members of vulnerable or underserved communities. She served as an Assistant Public Defender for the Missouri State Public Defender System for almost 25 years. Commissioner Thompson is a liaison for the county’s Community Services Department, Criminal Justice Administration, Boone County Family Resources, the Disproportionate Minority Contact Committee and the Judicial and Law Enforcement Task Force, as well as many other departments and organizations. She also serves on NACo’s Justice and Public Safety Policy Steering Committee and was part of the NACo-NSA Joint Task Force on Pre-Trial Detainee Health Care in Jails. NACo is spotlighting Commissioner Thompson in its inaugural community portrait for its Data-Driven Justice (DDJ) project because of her leadership in championing the county’s efforts to assist frequent utilizers.

Q: County commissioners have a lot on their plate and frequently face competing priorities. How did you and your county decide to prioritize justice issues?

A: The determination to focus on justice issues really began by examining the core responsibilities we have as public officials – ensuring public safety, wisely using resources and appropriately and efficiently applying them as best as we can to benefit the community. When we started to scrutinize those concerns, particularly the amount of money we were spending on the justice system, we started to question if we as officials were applying the right approach. We began to grapple with whether we were focusing our resources in the right places and helping individuals, families and our community in the best way possible. Were we efficiently using those dollars that we had been entrusted with to improve the lives of those we serve? After analyzing all those factors, it was an easy decision to say that we needed to prioritize justice issues especially when considering its impact on the community and the budget.

Q: Why did your community decide to join Data-Driven Justice? Was there a specific issue you were trying to solve?

A: As a county, we wanted to participate in initiatives with an evidence-based approach so that we could objectively identify strengths and gaps within our justice system. Joining the Data-Driven Justice project was a part of that strategy, with the goal of improving the coordination between health and human services and the justice system. We wanted to better support our frequent utilizers of those services and increase their access to treatment. Prior to joining DDJ, Boone County joined the Stepping Up initiative and completed a sequential intercept mapping project, which established an impartial, systematic method to understanding what resources are in our community to help people experiencing a behavioral health crisis. It was also a way to substantiate changes we were making to our voters. Projects like Stepping Up and DDJ allow us to respond to interconnected issues from a data-driven perspective, as well as ground us in reality, rather than simply relying on anecdotal evidence.  Participating in these initiatives has given us an opportunity to align our resources so that we can better serve people.

Q: What steps are being taken in your community to better assist individuals who are frequent utilizers of justice, health and human services systems? 

A: The county has taken steps and put resources in place to address frequent utilizers. A large number of our frequent utilizers are individuals who not only cycle in and out of our jail system but have also been identified as members of our homeless community. One of the first steps we took was to establish a baseline understanding of people who are linked to both homeless services and the jail system.  Boone County received a grant from the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH) in partnership with the University of Chicago to pilot a data tool that compared data from agencies providing homeless services with information from the justice system. Based on the work being done through the grant, the county has developed a screening tool for everyone entering the Boone County Jail, so that assessments of an individual’s mental health history can be captured and used to support that individual in the future going forward.

We also got all our law enforcement agencies across the county to participate in the same data platform for records management and jail management systems. This enables all law enforcement departments to be informed and alerted to any mental health histories of people they encounter and allows for officers to respond appropriately. In addition, our Sheriff’s department has received crisis intervention training, therefore officers encountering people experiencing a mental health crisis have the skills to effectively address the situation.

Another step we’ve taken is to participate in the Functional Zero Task Force (FZTF), which is a collaboration between city and county agencies and organizations that provide direct services to people experiencing homelessness. The task force coordinates efforts across multiple organizations to implement strategies and best practices for ending chronic, family, youth and veteran homelessness. For example, staff at Harry. S. Truman Veterans’ Hospital are involved in the FZTF and actively identifying veterans who cycle between justice and human services systems. They are working to provide needed resources to our veterans.

All of these actions have helped us gather more data and have helped elevate our understanding and response to our frequent utilizers.

Q: What is your specific role in your DDJ efforts?

A: My role often involves understanding best practices, sharing available resources, facilitating connections and communicating so that everyone has useful information to drive decision-making.  I often lean on my experience and relationships to help advocate on issues and encourage positive change. In that effort, I have used NACo’s network to connect people within the county who may otherwise be reluctant to change or to step outside established procedures to peers in other counties. For example, we wanted to understand how to better monitor cases in our county jail that involves people with a mental health history. We reached out to NACo to understand if there was another county conducting mental health staffings. As a result, we were connected with Johnson County, Iowa.  Based on that relationship, we developed our own mental health staffing structure. We often look for other county examples or contacts if we are considering making significant changes to better understand best practices and established models to help us accomplish our goals.

Q: What successes has your community achieved with assisting frequent utilizers? What do you see as the opportunities in your community for advancing justice and mental health?

A: A recent success we have experienced is the addition of the Community Mental Health Liaison position dedicated for the county. Previously, this was a state position, funded by our state mental health care provider. However, our county was sharing this position with nine others, which meant that it wasn’t able to deliver the impact we needed. A full-time position staffed within the county is an enhancement that we fiercely advocated for because it will provide the county with dedicated support to assist individuals experiencing a behavioral health crisis out in the community.

Some of the opportunities we’re pursuing include setting up a co-responder program that will help law enforcement guide individuals in crisis to appropriate services. We are also working on developing a Justice and Behavioral Health Coordinator position to leverage and maintain established justice and behavioral health initiatives. Lastly, depending on funding, the county will be developing a 24-hour access center for crisis care.

Q: What advice or recommendations do you have for other communities that are contemplating or making efforts to advance and innovate within the justice and mental health field?

A: To make advancements, entities need to get buy-in from stakeholders and obtain community support. It takes time and you need to find those advocates and champions within agencies and organizations to bolster your efforts. You will find them; it just does not happen overnight.

Progress does not always come easy or quickly but the work that we’re doing is too important to give up. There are too many people we haven’t served well and if we can change the trajectory of those lives that’s a gift, not just to them and their families, but the whole community. You have to be patient and persistent because if you can affect those lives, then all of the effort is worthwhile. Any change that you make to improve the lives of others is a change for the good, so keep going and don’t get discouraged by not being able to do the big things or focusing on what you can’t do. Do what you can with what you have. Don’t be afraid to reach out to other communities, who may be able to serve as a model for the changes you want to make and know that you are not alone.

Q: What are the qualities or characteristics that make your community unique or special?

Boone County is composed of a group of people who listen well to others. We’re still interested in community here. I think the key is having an understanding that together as a community we can thrive. When we get too concerned about one group to the detriment of another, it can contribute to an imbalance where resources become much scarcer and the ability to affect change becomes less likely. So, I think we understand that and function more as a collective body. We really are a group of people that wants to raise the quality of life for our community and that applies more broadly than solely being concerned about ourselves or our families.

NACo would like to thank Commissioner Janet Thompson for speaking with us about her and Boone County’s efforts.