As Boone County Coroner Justin Sparks explained, the role and duties of a coroner consist of a great deal more than writing death certificates—the coroner is responsible for many services that impact the entire county. And now that the [county] population is on an upward trajectory, Sparks is sharing what challenges he and his staff have been experiencing and why a justice center is a solution to not only his office’s specific challenges but [the justice center] will also provide solutions to several obstacles the county’s leadership and constituents have been facing over the last decade-plus.
The Coroner’s Investigative and Expert Contributions to the County
“My office is responsible for being the unbiased fact-checker,” Sparks explained. “I do a lot of parallel investigations with all the different agencies here [in Boone County]. While I may be working on the same ‘scene’ or sitting in the same room, conducting those interviews, I also send my labs off to a third-party service and bring in third-party pathologists so that when I sit down with the family [of the deceased] to tell them the final chapter of their loved one’s life—it’s facts, scientifically proven and unbiased. My office tells the truth, no matter how uncomfortable [the truth] is. It is my job to find the truth and to report that.”
Sparks shared that he collects and studies a lot of data analysis on root causes of crime, suicides, and substance abuse.
“When we talk about mental health and substance abuse, I do a lot of data analysis on what those root causes are, and I have always said that I believe my target objective/goal is to get to where I don’t have preventable deaths. Essentially, that’s an impossible goal, but I actively work on it.”
Sparks continued, “I have a legal responsibility in my office to determine the manner and mechanism of death. And I have a much broader responsibility—that’s not written into law anywhere—to my community to understand the things that are impacting folks. I literally use my position to stand up and talk about these issues.
Windows of Intervention
Sparks explained that during an investigation of overdose death, he works with all the respective agencies, and they piece together the deceased’s life and work backward.
“We start out with they died today, let’s work it backward and look at what was going on in their life,” Sparks said. “I think the justice center project will afford huge opportunities for us—allowing everybody to work side by side, we can have the continuity that the criminal justice system requires.”
Once a person is released from incarceration, Sparks pointed out that under the current system, the person is typically waiting on the steps of the jail for a ride. In those critical minutes/hours, the person is likely to be exposed to the people and the environment that got them incarcerated in the first place.
“When we get to the discharge point, this is the most opportune time to interject mental health and substance abuse counseling,” Sparks said. “In that narrow window of time from when a person is released from jail—before they’ve even had the opportunity to go to community corrections or probation—they’re going to be exposed to the environment that got them there.”
Sparks continued, “That creates an opportunity to fail when they’re most vulnerable, and that’s a big deal. If we were able to have all the departments and services in one spot, we could set them up with the services that they need. It comes down to basic building blocks and addressing this from a human needs standpoint. If you don’t have the tools in your toolbox to understand and deal with stress and things in your life, you’re going to do what’s comfortable to you, and that’s just human nature.
In a perfect world, every individual would have every opportunity and would be given directions on how to be successful, but Sparks emphasized that there are many people out there in the world that grow up in environments where they lack that direction and lack support from a mentor or someone who cares enough to say, “Hey, your life is valuable. You have a purpose. And this is the way that you need to go.”
“The sheriff and our community corrections people are all incredibly dedicated folks who work to help people,” Sparks expressed. “Many of the cases that I investigate are preventable if we intervene at an appropriate time. If we get that first chance to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got you. There are consequences for your actions, but we’re going to give you the tools to change the path of your life.’”
Boone County Commissioner Tom Santelli added,
“The point of the justice center is to provide these services before people get incarcerated. Our county is focused on helping people — not incarcerating people. We want to help them from the standpoint of intervening and changing the trajectory of their lives.”Boone County Commissioner Tom Santelli
Addressing Mental Health and Substance Abuse Is a Priority
Santelli continued, “With the justice center, there’s a lot of opportunities to do this, and though this may be a difficult sell for some people who have never been touched by a loved one having a substance abuse problem or mental health problem, I think there are a lot of people who will quietly say this [the justice center] is a good thing for us to do in our county. Substance abuse ties into mental health, and we have to treat them all at the same time to make an impact.”
In order to make Boone County the best and healthiest, it must take care of its sick and suffering.
“If we are afforded the ability to build the infrastructure and put the tools in place, then we will be able to implement a system where we can help people that want the help, train them and send them out to live their purpose,” Sparks said. “This is a project that will gain momentum, and it will spread. We will achieve the goals that we have identified and set. I’m not afraid to stand up and talk about the challenges that our community faces—that my office faces. Our community is growing, and my office has outgrown the [current] facilities.”
Expanding the County Morgue
Many may not realize that the county morgue is currently working out of Witham Hospital in Lebanon. The space is on the main floor in the emergency department. It is a far cry from a 30-drawer, properly ventilated space, located in the lower level of a hospital as you are used to seeing depicted on TV shows/movies. Though Sparks spoke highly of the relationship that his office has with Witham Health Services administration and staff, he simply stated the obvious—he needs more space, and our county’s deceased deserve first-rate care.
“A lot of folks that I bring into my care and custody, I have to keep for a period of time because people don’t have funeral arrangements, etc.,” Sparks said. “It’s not uncommon for me to have people in my possession for five to six days. We have utilized the District 5 (D5) trailer that holds up to 18 bodies. But it’s a D5 resource that can be tapped anytime. When I go into ‘overflow’ status, we communicate constantly with the Witham administrators and staff members and work great together, but it’s a fact that we’ve outgrown the space.”
Sparks added, “The need is critical. Sometimes people die alone and don’t get found immediately. If I put that person in the cooler in the emergency department, the entire first floor of the hospital is going to smell. The systems for ventilation that we can put into a new building is vastly different than how it was built in the past, and now it’s time to build a morgue that is appropriate for the needs of our growing population.”
Commissioner Santelli added
“There is a huge need for a justice center, and we’re in a window where the interest rates are low. We know that they will go up, and we know that inflation is there, so if we don’t move right now, it’s going to cost us millions more to do this project. We’ve got people that are acting politically and don’t want to increase taxes—this is a Jail LIT tax—but it’s one of those things that if you don’t take care of it now, it will only cost more down the road. Our county is not going to get smaller, and our needs are only going become larger in scale.”
Sparks concluded, “My office has seen a 129.4% increased volume over five years. We’re growing [as a community], and we’re going to exceed last year’s numbers. Even if we just have average months the rest of 2021, we are already ahead of 2020.”