SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Police and probation officers in 23 South Dakota counties will soon be equipped with tablet computers so they can connect people in mental distress with mental health professionals, under a pilot program announced Thursday.

The initiative was spearheaded by Supreme Court Chief Justice David Gilbertson, who said it could “revolutionize" a criminal justice system that sees a constant flow of people with mental health problems.

“Sure, they have been charged with a crime, but why did they commit that crime?” he said. “The underlying issue is mental illness.”

Avera Health and sheriffs' offices across the state will also partner for the next year on the program, which is funded through $1 million from the Helmsley Charitable Trust. It will send 117 iPads to be used by 18 sheriff’s offices and probation officers in eight counties

Lawmakers and sheriffs have been looking for ways to deal with what they call a shortage of mental health professionals, especially in rural areas. There is concern that with a mounting number of people facing the challenges of the agricultural economy, increases in rural drug abuse, and now the isolation of the coronavirus pandemic could result in an uptick of people facing mental crises.

Butte County Sheriff Fred Lamphere said the program has already reduced his office's workload of transporting people to mental health facilities. He said his office sometimes has to drive people across the state to have them committed, but that the tablets offer a way to de-escalate situations and sometimes allow people to remain in their homes.

If someone is depressed or has talked about hurting themselves or other people, officers can determine if they should apprehend the person or let them video call a mental health professional at Avera's facility in Sioux Falls, Lamphere said.

“When we’re just at a communication level and things are working, we build a rapport, this is where this thing is really golden,” Lamphere said. “We can ask this person, ‘Are you willing to speak to someone to help you get through this?’”

Gilbertson envisions the program at every level of the criminal justice system. He hopes the pilot program, which will run through June next year, could reduce the number of people who need to be committed to mental health facilities.

As police departments around the country search for innovations after widespread protests over police brutality and the killings of Black people by law enforcement, Gilbertson said the program could be put to use elsewhere.

“We are a laboratory for the other states,” he said. “There's no reason if it works here it can’t work anywhere else.”

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