The Davidson County Sheriff has started construction on a facility that will force the local criminal justice system to change how it treats people with a mental illness.
But at its official groundbreaking this week, the sheriff admitted he still has some convincing to do.
This 60-bed "behavioral care center" is behind the new downtown jail and will have an entirely separate entrance. It would be just for people arrested on certain misdemeanors who have been diagnosed with a low- to mid-level mental illness. Charges would effectively be suspended if the person completes their course of treatment.
Police have signed off, and prosecutors have given their blessing. But judges still have reservations since many of these people have lengthy records and arrest warrants out for failing to comply with a court order.
"The court system, I'm having to work with," Sheriff Daron Hall says. "Some of them are on probation, and those courts want them back in the courtrooms."
Hall has until 2020 — when the facility is slated to open — to work out the details.
This jail diversion program is not the ultimate solution to the city's mental health crisis, Hall says. But currently 30 percent of everyone arrested and booked in Nashville has a mental health diagnosis.
"If you will take those 30 percent away from me, take 30 percent of my budget, take 30 percent of the police budget, take 30 percent of the courts budget and treat it as what it is," Hall says, acknowledging that his idea does not make him popular with criminal justice colleagues.
Other cities, like San Antonio, have pioneered this jail diversion concept. Hall and other reformers say the effort to "deinstitutionalize" mental illness, beginning in the mid-1950s, explains how jails have come to be holding cells for people who really just need treatment.
Nashville is also adding a "crisis center" where police can drop off people who've been arrested but need mental health attention. Metro Police estimates that officers spend 5,000 hours a year awaiting mental health evaluations for people they've arrested.