Community Portrait: Mike Brouwer

This Community Portrait is the third 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.

Mike Brouwer has spent his career working to better behavioral health and criminal justice systems in Kansas. He is the Criminal Justice Coordinator for Douglas County’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC). In this role, he organizes reforms to the criminal justice system and manages the intersection with health systems. Mike has an undergraduate degree from MidAmerica Nazarene University and a Masters of Science in Education, Transition and Career Development from Kansas University. In addition to his criminal justice and behavioral health reform work, he worked part-time as a basketball and soccer referee for almost 30 years, only recently laying down his whistle.

Q: How did you get into this work? 

My background is in community mental health. For seven years I worked in county mental health systems with transition age young adults. Youth at that age dealing with mental health issues tend to have a lot of involvement with the criminal justice system. There’s going to court, dealing with probation officers and house arrest. It was an intersection I found very rewarding. So when I was approached to work on a project more squarely in the criminal justice space, I absolutely jumped at the opportunity. In that role, I was utilizing neighboring Johnson County’s criminal justice database to flag people who needed mental health treatment in jail so that probation staff and the residential center would be able to plan for transition, treatment and services when folks re-entered society.

I have worked in Douglas County since 2012, first as the Reentry Director and now as the Criminal Justice Coordinator. Most of my job is keeping key players engaged and informed with what’s going on in our community, what best practices are and what is being tried in other communities. I also work with our data analyst to be able to show the impact of the work and gaps in data that we have.

Q: What led Douglas County to join Data Driven Justice (DDJ)?

Initially, mental health concerns drove these efforts. There was a rise in the jail population of those with serious mental illness and a very strongly held belief that the jail was overcrowded because the state had decreased mental health services and cut state hospital beds. These were the initial motivations for getting involved in DDJ. After seeing a presentation by Johnson County, Iowa, we wondered what frequent utilizers were costing the county and really wanted to understand that population better. We realized that although we have a significant investment in social services in Douglas County, our services were disconnected, we did not fully understand who our high utilizers were and we lacked a unified method to track and serve them.

All of our focus on frequent utilizers started with a need for screening and assessment at the jail. But then we saw that we were missing people and catching the issues too late. This led to a contract with a neighboring county (Johnson County, Kan.) to implement a shared 211 response system and a partitioned case management database that we call My Resource Connection. So if your client goes to Catholic Charities and utilizes their food pantry, it’s going to show you as the primary case manager in My Resource Connection. If your client is in the county jail, it is going to give automated alerts by email, letting you know that your client has been arrested.

It took over a year to get the green light from all parties, but in the meantime, we were identifying frequent utilizers by hand and using that information to get support. In December 2020, we finally got all of our key partners to sign business user agreements to allow our data analyst to analyze the data, identify high utilizers and begin directing services and interventions to them. Now, on any given day, I can see how many people in the jail have a serious mental illness; I can tell you what percentage of people with serious mental illness are being booked into jail and the data dashboards on our website can show the public that same information.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, having this basis in data allowed us to use CARES Act funding for temporary housing right next to our Mental Health Center, allowing us to supply people with winter housing and provide outreach services in close proximity. We were also able to fund two different projects renting out hotel rooms for folks in need of housing. We had the data to know where the needs were and use funding effectively.

Q: How is the DDJ work structured in Douglas County?

Our CJCC is made up of our criminal justice stakeholders, county and city commissioners, staff members from University of Kansas, staff at relevant organizations and agencies, community members and those with a lived, personal experience of the criminal justice system. The CJCC has six different work groups focusing on everything from racial disparities to crisis intervention. After starting the process of building a crisis center, it became obvious that there was a need for a coordinating council on the behavioral health side. A Behavioral Health Coordinator was hired as my counterpart and we meet twice a week – there’s a lot of collaboration. In addition, the sheriff has been very committed and involved in integrating mental health clinical staff and programming in our jails, which has enabled Douglas County to do much more expansive and effective criminal justice reform work.

Q: Can you describe your racial and ethnic disparities work? 

For some time, our community has wanted to look at racial disparity data. This has been difficult because the databases are massive and the information is incomplete; they are not searchable or entirely accurate. Our data scientist, Matt Cravens, introduced the idea of using regression analysis to look at data so we can control 10 or 12 data points that allow us to comfortably say whether or not we have found a correlation. Now we’re analyzing all of our decisions in our criminal justice system based on race, which has been very revealing.

What we’ve learned is that we are arresting Black people at an almost four times higher rate than white persons. We also found that if you are Black, you would stay in jail about 20 percent longer than a white person. We are really trying to challenge ourselves to understand why and build safeguards against these inequalities occuring. This led to a study with Northeastern University, where we are logging every law enforcement contact into our criminal justice database to determine where and why these inequalities exist. We’re expecting to get the report from Northeastern University in winter 2022 with recommendations on how to curb the biases in our system. We have begun to focus on other decision points in the criminal justice system as well. Our key decisions are clearly creating a lot of disparities, and we hope that having more and better data on this will help us change this.

Q: What keeps you motivated to do this work? What gets you out of bed in the morning?

I love the people I work with. We really do all of this work collectively. We’re a large enough county to have enough money to make big changes but small enough to not have a ton of red tape, which makes it an exciting place for work when you are trying to improve people’s quality of life. We are a tight knit county so the people we are serving I see at the grocery store and at our children’s soccer games. I’m thankful that the work I get to be involved in has a hand in changing people’s lives.

Q: Do you have any advice or recommendations to other counties that are implementing efforts to innovate within the justice and mental health space? 

In Douglas County, the sheriff wanted to understand why people with mental illness were in our jail. To answer that question, we created two councils and numerous alternative programs that have helped change the conversation about mental illness in our entire system. Even if you only have two or three people, someone from the jail, someone from the mental health center and a community leader – that’s a fantastic place to start. All you need is a few people to start getting together and talking about how to solve these problems. We began with just a few folks who felt strongly that conversations about frequent utilizers needed to be happening regularly. Within three months we had 42 people in this group. Just start. Just start getting people together. I also tell people who are just starting this work in other places to get on the DDJ calls and listen and ask questions. Folks in other counties will be happy to help and there are a lot of resources there for you. There is so much support available.

NACo would like to thank Mike Brouwer for speaking with us about his and Douglas County’s efforts. He can be reached at