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At least two Michigan officials hope to form and send a delegation to Norway to learn how that country's focus on mental health and humane prisons could improve criminal justice in Michigan.  

Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton and state Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack said they'd like to learn first-hand about Norwegian approaches outlined in the series Healing Justice, which ran Oct. 10-11 in The Detroit News.

Michigan has an incarceration rate that is more than eight times higher than Norway's, due partly to the large number of mentally ill people who end up in U.S. jails and prisons.

“There are a number of folks that are really interested in going out there and learning some of the lessons and strategies that are being implemented in that country,” Clayton said, adding that he hopes to find grant funding to cover the cost.

"I think the answers to our challenges in this country, some of the answers are out of this country," Clayton said. "(We) can't just read about it. ... We need to go out there and see it for ourselves." 

A Detroit News reporter traveled to Norway in March to learn how that country's focus on mental health has contributed to some of the worlds lowest rates of incarceration and recidivism. 

Several states have sent delegations to Norway to study its prison system. Some, including North Dakota and Oregon, have begun implementing reforms based on prisons in Norway, where guards work to develop relationships with prisoners and don't carry guns. 

Clayton said he'd like Michigan's delegation to visit mental health programs in Norway, as well as prisons. He developed mandatory two-day mental health training for Washtenaw deputies and pushed for a community mental health and public safety millage approved by county voters in 2017.

Critics argue that failings in the United States' mental health system have turned U.S. jails and prisons into revolving doors for people with mental illness — a problem they say contributes to high incarceration rates while making some mentally ill prisoners sicker.

More than a quarter of Michigan's 38,000 state prison inmates receive mental health treatment, according to the state. 

Clayton said he would welcome a mental health ambulance like one in Bergen, Norway, that responds to calls about people with mental health issues. It's staffed with psychiatric nurses experienced at calming distraught patients and family members.

Police officers often have the first contact with mentally ill people and are charged with deciding whether they'll go to jail or a mental health facility, Clayton said. But there often are few mental health options available, he said.  

Chief Justice McCormack said she's intrigued by Norway's approach, and would like to join the delegation if Clayton succeeds in obtaining grant funding. 

Together with Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, she co-chairs the Michigan Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration, created in April to explore how to reduce populations at the state's county jails that have tripled since the mid-1980s even though crime is at a 50-year low. 

The PEW Charitable Trusts has committed staff resources valued at up to $1 million to help the task force gather data it needs to make informed policy decisions. At a meeting in October, the task force examined PEW data on the existing laws that govern such issues as the options available to police when deciding whether to charge someone with a crime.  

"I just continue to feel excited about what feels to me like real commitment and energy on the part of so many different stakeholders — bipartisan, and state and county level, all of which is necessary to make any real improvements to the system, because it involves so many players at different levels of government," McCormack said. 

"I'm optimistic." 

kbouffard@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @kbouffardDN

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