Janet Hays is reimagining the office of sheriff and has proven experience putting vision into practice. She is a New Orleans resident and national leader in the advocacy movement for those impacted by serious brain illnesses. In her work with Healing Minds NOLA and Mental Illness Policy Org she is putting broken bones together and breathing life into them. Now she is running for Sheriff in her Orleans parish.

Kathy Day, Senior Family Liaison at Treatment Advocacy Center calls Hays, “… a passionate advocate who works harder than anyone I know. Her persistence often pays off in ways that help families dealing with serious and persistent brain illnesses.”

Leslie Carpenter, a leading advocate for people with no fault serious brain diseases, cites the Zoomcast series Hays produced in 2020 and into 2021 as, “… one of the best compilations of both what is wrong with the present system and… what changes are needed at all levels.”

I asked Ms. Hays what drew her into advocacy work.

“After Hurricane Katrina, many psychiatric beds were closed. There was a desperate lack of infrastructure. People were left hanging. There was a huge uptick in people with serious brain diseases channeled into incarceration, homelessness, ERs, and coffins. Lives were lost.”

Hays says her prime motivation was a seed of justice.

“I am a fighter of injustices. Tragedies were striking people with diseases through no fault of their own. I have been and continue to be a voice for families of those who suffer.”

But why run for sheriff?

“I am running for sheriff to ACT. Accountability. Collaboration. Trust. I am a problem solver who has a proven record of executing change by bringing to the table diverse stakeholders to meet common objectives for the good of all. I’ve done this at local and national levels.”

Hays names Judge Steven Leifman of Dade County in Miami as a personal inspiration on how change at a local level can have a ripple effect on the global community.

“I first met Judge Leifman at an event in Baton Rouge where he was speaking to a Mental Health Collaborative Stakeholder group about his work to reduce incarceration of people living with mental illnesses with proven results. The jail audit went from about 7,300 to 4,000 and they were able to close one of their 3 main jails. Over 7 years, that was a  savings of $84 Million.

His Criminal Justice Mental Health Program now enjoys wide national recognition in it’s successful diversion programs and first of its kind ‘One-Stop Shop’ Miami Center for Mental Health and Recovery. As sheriff, I will work to implement Judge Leifman’s blueprint for success with some modification to meet the unique needs of New Orleans.

What about policy objectives? What is one major issue Orleans parish is facing?

“The biggest issue on everyone’s mind is the uptick in violent crime. The voices of people in the most impacted areas are being shut out. This needs to change. I understand that many people become involved in the criminal justice system due to health, education and employment inequities, and discrimination. But people still need to be held accountable for their actions. Accountability is an opportunity to help people change their lives. My plan to reduce crime and make the city safer is to work on both sides of the criminal justice system to build infrastructure that allows people time to step back into the community at a rate that meets their individualized needs.

“Plans are underway to construct a large and costly jail. We don’t need more jails; we need a psychiatric hospital. This will save both lives and money. I am currently working with a man who has had 102 commitments that have cost taxpayers over $3 million. There are hundreds, thousands even, people with chronic mental illness that need treatment, not punishment. The Sheriff’s office should use FEMA money to build a state-of-the-art hospital rather than another jail.”

Hays has a vision for Orleans she believes can become reality.

“I want to eliminate discrimination often caused or aggravated by corruption – corrupt policies and practices. This would lead to a healthier and safer community here in Orleans and in our nation.”

I asked Hays how she maintains her own mental health as she fights injustice and advocates for the disenfranchised.

“I tell people I am fortunate I can take breaks for my well-being. The only breaks people with serious brain illnesses get are psychotic breaks.”

”I start my mornings with a walk in one of New Orleans’ many beautiful parks. My Rhodesian Ridgeback, Shabo, gets me out even on days when I’m overwhelmed. I find that is when my mind is most focused and most creative. 

Those of us who are impacted by brain illnesses have an ally in Janet Hays. More than this, in the role of sheriff she would work tirelessly to promote both health and safety as she devotes precious taxpayer dollars to provide treatment before tragedy.

To support her candidacy, go to janethaysforsheriff.com . There you can make a grassroots financial donation and keep apprised of the campaign.