Mental Health Court
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.
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 a start.
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 courts.
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 project-a 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 eligibility-a 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 to live.
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 right direction.