Mental Health Court is not a new idea. It has been around for a while, but is just now being embraced by communities because: 1-it works; 2-it costs less to implement; 3-it provides more humane care for the mentally ill.
Our prisons and jails are full of mentally ill people. To expect them to behave just like everyone else is not practical. Yes, I agree that all people–healthy and ill–must bear the responsibility for acts they commit. But even the law takes extenuating circumstances into consideration.
Let’s all keep an eye on these types of programs and give them our support. At least some communities are trying to find a better way to support and help this part of the population. For that we should congratulate them.
BY RON SYLVESTER
The Wichita Eagle
Judge Bryce Abbott said he was glad to see the woman walking to his bench in Wichita Municipal Court. “It’s so nice to see someone who’s not in handcuffs,” Abbott told her.
She had been charged with her second case of driving under the influence. She’d kept all the appointments with her caseworker for the previous two weeks and was following through with her treatment as required by the city’s new mental health court.
Funded by a federal grant from the Department of Justice, mental health court helps those charged with misdemeanor crimes who have severe mental illnesses.
Rather than being sent to jail, those who are eligible are given probation and monitored weekly or biweekly to make sure they follow treatment plans.
It’s the latest effort by Wichita and Sedgwick County to keep people with mental illnesses from going to jail.
It costs the county $65 a day to keep an inmate in jail, and the cost of supplying medication can soar to $600 a day for someone with a severe mental illness.
Keeping people on probation or in other services costs a fraction of that.
A month into the mental health court program, there’s not enough data to show how well it’s working. But so far, those involved are encouraged.
“We’re already seeing diversions from jail on a weekly basis,” said Jason Scheck, program director of the Sedgwick County Offender Assessment Program with Comcare, the county’s community mental health provider.
More than 30 people have appeared in Abbott’s mental health court, which meets weekly in courtroom D at City Hall.
None of the defendants’ names are being used to protect their medical privacy.
“What’s really surprised me is the number of people who have accepted treatment,” Abbott said after court.
Others weren’t as fortunate as the woman who appeared before the judge without handcuffs. Three people had to provide a urine analysis, or UA, for drugs prior to last Monday’s court and flunked — meaning they violated the terms of their probation. They were led into court in handcuffs for Abbott to decide whether to revoke probation.
“We’ve got three UAs and all of them are hot,” Abbott said.
The number of people with mental illnesses who end up in jail or prison has been growing nationwide for 20 years, studies show.
Kansas has reacted by training law enforcement officers — beginning in the Wichita area — to better respond to the mentally ill in crises.
Scheck said about 150 people have been taken to mental health services instead of jail by police trained in crisis management.
Mental health court is the next step in trying to divert people from jail.
Those at last week’s docket faced charges including intoxicated driving, inhaling chemicals to get high, and filing false police reports.
“You are taking some medications that don’t go along very well with getting high,” Abbott told one man who tested positive for cocaine and marijuana.
The man had been sentenced to a year in jail but was released on probation.
Doing drugs was a violation of his probation and could have resulted in him being sent back to jail.
Daryl Handlin, a social worker with Comcare, told the judge that the man had suffered some health problems consistent with his medications mixing with street drugs.
“I don’t want to go to jail for a year,” the man said.
“That’s what I’m trying to help you keep from doing,” Abbott told the man. “You keep going with us, and before you know it you’ll be at the end of that year. But you’ve got to work with us.”
The mental health court assigns its clients to caseworkers and mental health professionals. It helps them get into treatment programs.
Prosecutors and public defenders work together in the best interests of the defendants.
“I wouldn’t argue with treatment, because that’s what’s best for them,” said Nic Means, the city public defender who works with mental health court clients. “Some people just need help getting control of their lives.”
This is the state’s first mental health court, but Abbott said other cities are showing interest. Officials from El Dorado have scheduled a visit next month to see how the court works, Abbott said.
“The problem is the people who provide services in the community aren’t connected with the jail,” Abbott said. “And that’s where a lot of people end up. We help connect them.”
The hope is to get people the help they need before their crimes become serious enough that they end up in prison.
“The thought is if you can get people soon enough, they’ll get the services they need before they get caught up in the system,” said Dawn Shepler, a parole officer who specializes in mental health needs.
During Monday’s proceeding, Abbott told one man to go to Comcare’s Crisis Intervention Services to spend the night. He directed Comcare to have a caseworker walk the man to the Social Security office to apply for disability.
The man qualified for financial help but had never applied for it. Through mental health court, he could get the financial aid to help pay rent and find transportation.
Abbott said that in the first month, he’s sent one person to jail for not following the program’s rules. Four other people were sent to a state mental hospital for in-patient treatment.
“They were too serious for us to help them in the community,” he said.
Last week, Abbott gave another man his freedom.
The man got out of jail, picked up by social workers who will begin working with him.
“There are all sorts of services available in this community, and we’re really the gateway for helping people find them,” Abbott said.