The mentally ill need better than jail – Carrboro Police Department social worker says

Social Worker Monrita Hughes, photo courtesy Town of Carrboro.


By Fraser Sherman

The Town of Carrboro announces the hiring of Social Worker Monrita Hughes to work on the Community Care and Diversion Response (CCDR) team, a joint project by law enforcement in Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Hillsborough, and Orange County. This grant-funded project works to ensure people with serious mental illness receive treatment and support rather than jail time.

Hughes has experience as a youth and juvenile court counselor and has worked with adults with learning disabilities. Now she is working to find jail alternatives for mentally ill people who commit low-level criminal acts.

“Many people find themselves stuck through various circumstances,” Hughes, a diversion social worker with the Carrboro Police Department, said in a press release. “We are working to connect them with resources that will help.”

If an individual’s criminal or dangerous behavior is primarily due to mental illness, CCDR aims to divert them to community-based resources that can provide treatment, reduce the risk of harm to themselves or others, and help them recover.

Hughes told The Local Reporter she grew up in Virginia but came to the Triangle while researching criminal justice in Orange County. She applied for a grant-funded diversion position, interviewed with the Carrboro Police Department, and got the job.

Policing and mental health diversion

Diversion programs are nothing new to Orange County. In 2016 the county launched a Misdemeanor Program to steer 16- and 17-year-olds with first-time misdemeanor offenses from criminal proceedings. The program lasted until 2019 when state law changed to shield teens under 18 from being tried as adults. The county then established the Pre-Arrest Diversion Program for adults and a Youth Deflection program for middle and high schoolers with low-level offenses.

A CCDR press release says the grant-funded Policing and Mental Health Diversion program’s primary goal “is to ensure that individuals with serious mental illness receive the treatment and support they need instead of being prosecuted in the criminal legal system for low-level offenses.”

Instead of turning to the court system, the diversion program works to identify and assess individuals with mental illness and divert them as soon as possible to a social worker such as Hughes. The program helps people access potentially life-changing services such as harm reduction, medication support, and recovery assistance. CCDR offers long-term support, since the transition back to stability often isn’t a quick process. Success means fewer mentally ill people in jail, improved mental health, and fewer people going to the Emergency Department to deal with a crisis.

Hughes’ daily work

Hughes said a clinician on staff handles the mental health assessment. Her role varies daily, depending on which individuals are part of her caseload and with what problems they’re coping. “I just follow whatever needs they have.”

Depending on where a person is in the legal process, that might mean visiting them in jail, going to court with them, or connecting them with peer support. Hughes said she might recommend a particular treatment program, arrange therapy, or suggest resources to help someone achieve their goals.

Sometimes she says, what’s most important to them is “finding someone to talk to past your initial interaction with officers.” People often aren’t comfortable talking to law enforcement, so it helps by “giving them someone else they can talk to, not in a uniform — someone who wants to help them.”

How Big Is The Problem?

The nonprofit organization Mental Health America says more than a third of state and federal prisoners have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder. More than half the inmates in state prisons have substance abuse problems. The effects of this hit people of color particularly hard: they’re arrested and incarcerated at a higher rate than white Americans, and often have less access to mental-health professionals.

Hughes said that while providing the care she offers might be challenging in some areas, Carrboro PD and Orange County are “very open to this concept of providing care to people and unhoused individuals.”

Hughes said the most satisfying part of the job is walking around Carrboro, talking to unhoused people who rarely get talked to, “asking about their day, treating them like they’re human.”

Fraser Sherman has worked for newspapers, including the Destin Log, the Pensacola News-Journal and the Raleigh Public Record. Born in England, he’d still live in Florida if he hadn’t met the perfect woman and moved to Durham to marry her. He’s the author of several film reference books and has published one novel and several short story collections.
This reporter can be reached at

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