Correcting the correctional system

SPKAt one point in her life, there was a warrant out for Sheryl Kubiak’s arrest. The dean of the School of Social Work forgot to pay a parking ticket and realized the warrant was out when she was denied entry to the local jail when arriving to teach her inside/out course.

“I had the $250 to pay it,” she recalls, “but if I didn't have it, I would be sitting in jail. And that's the travesty of the criminal legal system for you.”

About 1,800 people get booked into Wayne County jails on misdemeanors—like unpaid parking tickets or other non-violent crimes—each year, and of those individuals, about 93% have mental health problems.

As the director of the new Center for Behavioral Health and Justice, which opened on Wayne State’s campus last November, Kubiak and her team are working with the Wayne County judge and police chief to prevent these individuals from spending time in jail.

“You've got a population that is cycling into the jail and likely can’t afford bail. So they sit in the jail and get deregulated on their medications,” Kubiak explains. “And you know, jail is no place for somebody who has mental health problems. I mean, if you have symptoms going in, you’re going to have worse symptoms coming out. So we're trying to get them from that cycling and kind of catch them at the front door.”

The goal of the Mental Health Navigator Pilot Program is to set up what she calls “patient navigators” who can provide a work-around with the county judge even when bail can’t be posted on a misdeamnor charge and then help set up housing and treatment for people with mental health issues in the community.

In addition, through the Michigan Re-entry Project, Kubiak focuses on identification and treatment for opioid use disorder in prisons, and, with the project’s next step, in local jails. The reality is that some prisons and jails aren’t even trying to assess whether someone has been using, and others aren’t doing a good enough job, Kubiak said. This causes people to go into withdrawal behind bars.

“We've had some deaths in some of the jails because of people going through withdrawal, so we're trying to work with them on how do you identify when someone has an opioid use disorder? What's your plan of treatment? If they do [use], will you allow medication assisted therapies in your jail?,” she said.

These are just some of many projects Kubiak is working on through the Center for Behavioral Health and Justice. The mission of their work lies at the intersections of mental health, substance use disorders, and the criminal legal system, which she describes as a continuum.

Kubiak hopes that through the Center, work at this intersection will become a stronger focus both within the School of Social Work and across the university.

Please contact Sheryl Kubiak at to learn more about her research.

This article was written by Kelsey Husnick for the Wayne State Universtiy Spring 2019 Issue 2 of the Faculty Impact newsletter.

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