|Superior Court Mental Health Court
|Judge Jan R. Jurden
It all started in early 2008 when a colleague
came into my office, threw a file on my desk, and asked,
"Why do we do this? Why do we expect mentally ill
people to be able to comply with regular probation?"
He explained that he had just come from his weekly violation
of probation calendar.
One of the defendants on his calendar was being violated
for about the eighth time. The individual was severely
bipolar and had been grappling with mental illness for
most of his adult life. As a result, he was also grappling
with the criminal justice system, and very unsuccessfully.
His pattern was clear: he would go off his medication,
get into trouble, get convicted, get placed on probation,
violate that probation, and end up in prison. It was
a vicious cycle. View Trapped in the System: Florida's Response to the
Criminalization of Mental Illness.
My colleague lamented that this defendant didn't have
a snowball's chance in Hades of successfully
completing any probation and he certainly was not going
to do so if every time he violated he was brought before
a different judge who was unfamiliar with his illness
and his pattern. I agreed. And from this conversation,
a mental health court of sorts was borne. It's not a
full fledged mental health court, it's a "Violation
of Probation Mental Health Court." But it's
After that conversation, I approached the President
Judge of our court to see if he might let me start a
special calendar to address mentally ill probationers.
The President Judge was not only supportive, he was
downright enthusiastic. He asked me to meet with the
head of the Treatment Access Center (TASC) to figure out how
the best way to get the program up and running. TASC
provides assessment, case management and referral services
for offenders in both drug courts as well as other specialty
The director suggested we meet with members of her staff
and representatives from the Department of Justice, the Public
Defender and Probation
& Parole. During that meeting TASC workers educated
me and the lawyers about mental illness. They provided
in-depth descriptions of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia,
personality disorder, depression and the treatment methods
used for each. They also discussed the difficulty in
effectively treating such disorders when the defendant
also had an addiction. They were extremely knowledgeable
and very helpful.
During that same meeting we were able to formulate a
plan for launching a pilot projecta Mental
Health Violation of Probation (VOP) Court. The plan
was this: Start with no more than 30 defendants. Limit
the project to nonviolent offenders. No sex offenders.
Have one judge to insure consistency. Have a dedicated
team of TASC workers and specially assigned Probation
& Parole officers. Have a deputy attorney general
and public defender knowledgeable about mental illness
and about the particular defendants, again, to insure
consistency. Once we hammered out these criteria, we
had to figure out how to identify prospective participants.
We decided that Probation & Parole was in the best
position to identify those defendants most in need of
the program. Probation & Parole agreed and formulated
a check list to determine eligibilitya probationer
must not: be a sex offender, have any interstate cases
running concurrently, or have any pending charges.
After this, the only thing left was to figure out how
to staff the project. Court staff were already overworked
and stretched too thin. I should have known that despite
their burgeoning and overwhelming case loads, our Court
personnel would be supportive and rise to the occasion.
Without hesitation, they pledged to set up and staff
the calendars, maintain the files, and prepare whatever
sentence orders or sentence modifications were necessary.
We were ready. That was several months ago.
We now have a calendar every other week. We have an intake where I explain the goals and requirements
of the program and ascertain whether the defendant is
committed to succeeding on probation and addressing
his or her mental health (and, as is often the case,
addiction). We have status conferences where TASC and
Probation & Parole report on the defendant's progress,
note areas where he or she needs improvement, and suggest
different treatment methods when the current methods
aren't working. Depending on what the TASC workers and
Probation & Parole officers tell me, I may strongly
admonish one defendant for missing doctor's appointments,
congratulate another on taking his meds on a regular
schedule for two weeks straight, or try and help a defendant
who has been living in a cemetery find a suitable place
We've had two "graduations" and, I have to
admit, I was so happy for the two that succeeded that
my eyes filled with tears as I presented their certificates.
The pride in their faces erased the horrible images
I had of the razor blade and spurting blood. The joy
with which they accepted my praise and that of their
case workers invigorated my dampened spirit and renewed
my energy to change the way our criminal justice system
treats mentally-ill offenders.
It's a small step we're taking. But it's a strong step.
And there is no doubt in my mind it's a step in the