Mental Health Court: Moving From Jail and Hospital to Stability in the Community

For Immediate Release: Monday, September 20, 2010

Sponsored by: Health and Human Services Department, Division

Mental Health Court:  Moving From Jail and Hospital to Stability in the Community

Washington County's Department of Health and Human Services Mental Health Division is partnering with other County agencies to help people with severe and persistent mental illness and criminal justice involvement live in the community safely.  This is intended to help people avoid both hospitalization and going to jail as the result of their mental illness.

The program, called Mental Health Court, consists of a team representing the agencies that most often work with this population:  a judge, the Hon. Marco Hernandez of Washington County Circuit Court, two staff from the County Probation Services, an assistant district attorney, a public defender, a sheriff's deputy, a program manager from a contracted non-profit mental health services agency and Kristin Burke, Adult Mental Health Senior Program Coordinator from the Behavioral Health Division of HHS.

The clients of Mental Health Court have a serious mental illness and, often, a substance abuse problem.  They have been found guilty of breaking the law and have probation time to serve.  Only those clients who are considered non-violent offenders are eligible for the program.

Potential candidates meet with a defense attorney, who discusses the details of the program and helps them consider if it is the right program for them.  They must agree to live in approved housing, take medications as prescribed, agree to not use drugs or alcohol and to not break the law.  They also agree to participate in activities that support their positive mental health, such as attending counseling or therapy and participating in support groups that support their sobriety.  Those who are able are expected to find work.

The program connects participants with mental health treatment and other supports to help them remain successful in the community long after they graduate from the program.

"People come into the program with a wide range of mental illnesses," says Joe Simich, Probation and Parole Services Supervisor, who coordinates the program.  "We have people who suffer from disorders like bi-polar disorder, anxiety disorders and schizophrenia.  But once people have committed to take their medications and stay away from drugs or alcohol, they are on a road to living safely in the community."

The court and probation officers closely supervise each client.  In the first stage of the program, which typically lasts four months or longer, the aim is for the client to attain stability.  They must meet the conditions of the program and come to Mental Health Court sessions twice a month and visit their probation officer twice a month.  During their probation officer visits, they may be tested for alcohol or drug use.

Once a person has reached stability, they are eligible for Phase 2, where the focus is on restitution and community service.  Clients who are able to work pay part of their wages to the cover statutory expenses of court and to pay restitution to people they may have harmed.  The judge can convert some of the statutory costs to restitution, too.  People who are on Social Security will donate part of their benefits toward restitution.

Community service helps not only the non-profit organizations where the clients volunteer, but often the clients benefit, too.  For instance, one of the longest relationships that Mental Health Court has is with NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.  Clients volunteer to help in the office and often decide to participate in NAMI programs for mental health consumers and their families. Other community service organizations include Free Geek, where clients can learn about computers, and clients own churches, where many also volunteer.

Once reaching Phase 3, their goal is to maintain their stability for at least another four months to successfully complete the program.

In Phase 2, a visit to the court is reduced to only once each month.  In Phase 3, only one visit to the probation officer is expected each month.

By intensely providing needed services early in the program, Mental Health Court helps clients to learn basic skills that enable them to live successfully long term in the community.  "We may have to step in during the earlier phases to intervene so that a person is not in the hospital or in jail, but by the time clients are in Phase 3 of the program, they are aware of the services that are available to them and know to reach out for help to maintain their stability," says Simich.

One of the benefits of Mental Health Court is that the clients come before the same judge each time.  "Judge Hernandez spends a lot of time with these people.  While he deals with violations swiftly, he also enthusiastically supports the progress that the clients make as they work on their mental health issues and gain long term sobriety.  They get a lot of value from their relationship with the judge," says Simich.  Judge Hernandez is briefed on each client's progress at a staff meeting held before each Mental Health Court session.  He is familiar with the mental health diagnoses and their implications for the people who come before him.

The program currently has 33 client participants, though the need is much greater.  The team is looking for the opportunity to obtain additional funding to more fully fill this gap.  Despite that, "The program as we have it is far less expensive than what it would cost to house these people in a jail or hospital," according to Simich.

Mental Health Court is one example of the many partnerships between Washington County Health and Human Services and other County and community agencies working collaboratively to improve the mental health and safety of the community.


Media Contact:

Joe Simich, Probation and Parole Services Supervisor