Last month, county executives from around the country gathered for the 2018 National Association of Counties Annual Conference and Exposition at the Gaylord Opryland Resort in Nashville.

While the heat and humidity of a Tennessee summer would be enough to sap the energy from almost anyone, the thousands in attendance were abuzz, seeking solutions to some of the most pressing issues facing county governments today, including poverty, opioid addiction and the intersection of criminal justice/mental health care.

It was this last topic that was the focus of a thought-provoking panel discussion “The Fiscal Case for Criminal Justice Reform,” one of five scheduled discussions held on the topic throughout the duration of the conference.

Speaking before a packed room of attendees, the discussion could be summarized largely by one key thought shared by the panelists: “You can’t arrest your way out of a crime problem.”

As Mark Luttrell, Jr., mayor of Shelby County, Tenn. noted, education and criminal justice are the two most expensive services in a county, and yet the growth of the criminal justice system is exceeding the growth of the education system. The problem, Luttrell explained, is that more serious crimes – particularly crimes where perpetrators require mental health care – requiring more of the justice system, thereby making it more expensive to manage.

As David Eichenthal, executive director of the Center for Justice and Safety Finance at Public Financial Management noted, the costs of criminal justice systems around the country are also being driven upward by policing costs, which include officer training, benefits, pensions and more. And even at a time when crime statistics have decreased over the last 20 years, recent upticks in crime in some areas is often met with a call for more police officers on the streets to “fix” the crime problem. But as Eichenthal noted, “the cost of incarcerating someone is one of the most expensive things you could do as a means of addressing crime to the extent that you are not bending that curve.”

What’s more, Merceria Ludgood, commissioner of Mobile County, Ala. explained, “… unfortunately, the criminal justice system has become the largest mental health institution in most counties.” And, as Ronal Serpas, retired Nashville police chief noted, around half of those incarcerated have some identifiable mental health issue.

The key, she noted, is that district attorneys and public defender offices must work together to decide what is a public safety issue and what is a public nuisance issue. “It’s hard to sell that [to the public] as a politician,” Ludgood admitted, but it requires a shift in mindset to draw a line between things like violent crime and low-level drug possessions and/or offenses that include mental health issues.

“If we really want to fight crime, we need to address the ‘why’ and not just the ‘what,’” she concluded.

As Serpas added, law enforcement “needs support” and “alternatives to arrest.” Despite 30-year lows in crime, he explained, people are still afraid of crime, and so the prevailing thought for many is to keep arresting people to fix the problem. But this is where he cited a very compelling anecdote: in the 1960s, the U.S. was a nation of roughly 150 million people with around 500,000 mental health beds; today we have 300 million people, and “you’d have to look hard” to find approximately 40,000 beds.

The answer, he explained, is that the criminal justice system must have a better grasp of the data to help law enforcement do their job more safely and effectively. As Serpas said, the alternative is that we will see more young, untrained officers engage with suspects with backgrounds they can’t surmise that lead to dangerous results.

“We need to capitalize on this opportunity, because we are always going to have limited police officers, limited prosecutors… and limited prison beds,” he explained.