Two of Northern Arizona University’s departments and the NARBHA Institute are teaming up to find a solution to break the cycle that repeatedly lands people with behavioral health problems in the criminal justice system.

The NARBHA Institute, formerly known as the Northern Arizona Regional Behavioral Health Authority, gave an endowment to Northern Arizona University’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice to fund a new professorship.

The new professor, in a position known as the NARBHA Institute James Wurgler MD Chair of Criminal Justice and Behavioral Health, will work with behavioral health, law enforcement, the courts and other organizations to study the best ways to help people with problems such as substance abuse, mental health or physical health issues and keep them out of the criminal justice system, said Karen Pugliesi, the dean of NAU’s College of Social and Behavioral Science.

She said the college doesn’t have a person to fill the position yet and expects to start looking in the new year. The hope is to have someone in place for the 2018/2019 school year.

A high percentage of the people in jails across the country, including in Northern Arizona, have substance abuse, mental health or physical health problems, she said. Some of these residents have become locked in a cycle where they’re arrested on a minor infraction, such as a misdemeanor, but because they have a low-paying job or don’t have a job at all, they can’t afford bail to get out of jail. While they wait in jail, many who do have a job lose it while they wait for the court date.

The cycle continues when they get out of jail. Because they no longer have a job or have a hard time finding a replacement job, they can’t pay the fines or court fees from their case, Pugliesi said. This means a warrant can be issued for their arrest and the cycle starts over again.

This constant cycle has consequences not only for the person involved but for their families and their communities, she said. Parents are missing time with their children and losing jobs that they need to support their families. People without jobs also don’t have the money to continue their health care. Communities lose out on potentially productive members of society and have to pay for the care of those who wind up in prison or jail.

The new Wurgler chair will not only study the situations but help create policies and programs designed to break the cycle, she said. The new professor will also teach and lecture on the topics surrounding the cycle.

“We want to align polices and services to get people the help they need,” Pugliesi said. “There’s a benefit for the individual, their families and the community. It also helps conserve resources.”

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