As seen in the Orlando Sentinel

By Maria Bledsoe, CEO of Central Florida Cares Health System

Who hasn’t benefited from a second chance? When it comes to persons who find themselves involved in the criminal-justice system, second chances will soon be significantly enhanced in Central Florida. Osceola County has entered into a historic agreement with the aim of reducing recidivism and increasing employment and stability for persons recently released from jail.

When something is broken, our aim is to address the root cause and determine the best path forward in resolving the challenge. The criminal-justice system is currently reconsidering how it does business and how to best address the needs of individuals returning to society following incarceration.

Most segments of the criminal justice system either have adopted or are in the process of adopting a “person-first” results oriented and data-driven approach to transitioning the incarcerated into society and helping assure they have the necessary tools to meet with success and not return to the criminal justice system.

Reentry programs are the toolkits that are proving successful throughout the nation. The Florida Department of Children and Families has awarded a Criminal Justice, Mental Health and Substance Abuse Reinvestment Grant to Central Florida Cares Health System and this grant will allow the implementation of the Osceola County Corrections Emerge Re-Entry Program for their adult population transitioning back into the community.

Programs like these have a proven track record of success at helping people become valuable contributing members of society while simultaneously reducing future and long-term costs to the taxpayers. In partnership with Osceola County Corrections Department and Turning Point Counseling & Consulting, we are currently implementing the Emerge Re-Entry Program. I praise the Osceola County Board of County Commissioners for having the foresight to support this program that will likely be a tremendous step forward in helping our community successfully face and address the challenge of re-entering society and doing so at less or no risk of returning to “the system.”

Emerge is a community reentry program for recently discharged individuals. The largest provider of behavioral-health services in the United States are the county jails. We recognize the impact of behavioral health issues on those involved in, or at risk of involvement in, the criminal justice system and the benefits of working collaboratively to enhance outcomes and reduce recidivism.

This expansion will focus on increasing public safety, averting increased spending on, and increasing accessibility to and effectiveness of treatment services for adults with mental health and/or substance use disorder(s) who are in or at risk of entering the criminal justice system. The individuals served are adults who may be at-risk due to factors that may include homelessness, unstable living situations, history of victimization and/or abuse, history of involvement with the criminal justice system, and/or those re-entering society from jail and/or a forensic facility.

The re-entry program includes collateral services which are key to reducing recidivism such as supportive housing, supported employment, training and education, peer recovery services, and access to mental health and substance use treatment services.

In conjunction with Mobile Response Teams in Law Enforcement, the Re-Entry programs are reshaping how our criminal justice system operates for those with mental-health issues and/or substance-use disorder. The saying “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” applies to this community challenge. For countless decades, we have talked about “rehabilitation,” and with innovative approaches such as re-entry programs, we are embracing rehabilitation at its best.

With COVID-19, technological advances, and societal growth, there no longer is “business as usual.” These programs are transformative for not only the system and the individuals involved but also for our entire community. I applaud Florida’s Department of Children and Families for selecting Osceola Corrections for what will likely be a success story from which all Central Floridians will reap the benefits.

Maria Bledsoe is Chief Executive Officer of Central Florida Cares Health System, the state-designated managing entity for Brevard, Orange, Osceola, and Seminole counties which works to implement an affordable, high-quality behavioral health care system for persons with mental health and/or substance use disorders who are underinsured or uninsured.