Program will seek to move prisoners into treatment plans and out of the jail.
By Suevon Lee
Published: Sunday, July 19, 2009 at 6:30 a.m.
After more than a year of planning, Marion County's first mental health court opens Monday.
Funded in part by a federal grant, the nascent court is strongly modeled after similar programs established around the state, including one in Gainesville.
These programs seek to steer non-violent misdemeanor defendants with mental illness toward treatment programs instead of jail cells.
The Marion version will serve as a division of the county court and, much like the special drug and DUI courts, will be presided over by a county judge who works with the State Attorney's Office, Public Defender's Office and representatives from agencies like The Centers.
"When I first started [as a judge] seven years ago, I saw some situations that just kind of cried out for attention," said County Judge Jim McCune, who spearheaded the plan. "Mentally ill people tend to stay in the jail longer. There's nothing going on to get them out."
The Marion County Mental Health Court, one of more than 200 already established in the United States, seemingly couldn't launch at a better time.
According to Marion County Sheriff's Office projections, in 2007 there were between 327 and 1,287 mentally ill inmates at the Marion County Jail. That range is expected to increase to 459 to 1,804 by 2012 and to 1,553 to 6,101 by 2030.
In Florida alone, it's estimated that 125,000 individuals with serious mental illness are booked into jails each year.
Bob Sharpe, CEO of the Tallahassee-based Florida Council for Community Mental Health, said mental health courts have proven to be a reliable arm of the criminal justice system.
"It's had the effect of reducing the number of individuals with mental illness placed in jail. It's helped connect them with the mental health system where they may not have had exposure to the system before," he said.
The potential cost savings cannot be overlooked, either.
"It's cheaper to provide recovery services outside of a jail setting. Many participants [would be] getting treatment through government providers for mental health services," said Diana Williams, president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness' Marion County chapter. "There's just a better place for them. I'm glad we're finally on board with that."
The way the court will work is this: Misdemeanor defendants with no pending felony or DUI charges will be referred to the program through a judge, prosecutor, public defender or law enforcement officer.
If the defendant agrees, treatment providers will work with the State Attorney's Office and judge to determine if the defendant is qualified.
Eligible participants must have a mental illness that is chronic and persistent, such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or a major depressive disorder.
If accepted, the defendant will undergo a 12-month treatment program that includes weekly appearances before the judge, regular meetings with a case manager, required attendance at therapy and rehabilitation sessions, and compliance with certain drug and alcohol regulations.
Successful completion could result in a dropped charge; violations could lead to sanctions ranging from community service to jail.
"We need to start small," said McCune, emphasizing that he wants no more than 25 participants enrolled at a time.
"We need to be careful as to how we load this, so we can space it out and get our dynamics clearly worked out. I want to be real careful who gets in the program, and how we time people getting into the program."
The nation's first mental health court was founded in Broward County in 1997. County Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren, who to this day presides over the docket, said her goal was a "pure diversionary court model."
"The main problem is that for decades, individuals with various types of mental disabilities were really, blindly almost, being trans-institutionalized from hospital settings into jail settings," she said. "The criminalization of persons with mental illness is a very profoundly tragic social phenomenon."
The Alachua County Mental Health Court in Gainesville, an 8-year-old program that Marion's is strongly modeled after, functions less like an official proceeding than an informal dialogue between judge and participant.
One day last week, in a regular, chestnut-brown paneled courtroom, participants were seated on benches as the judge entered. Garbed in a black robe, the judge nodded and greeted the individuals, then called each to the lectern, one by one.
Seated in the jury box were representatives from local treatment centers.
"It's nice to see you. You're doing well," County Judge Denise R. Ferrero said to one defendant. "I'm impressed that you're willing to work with the doctors and not just increase the medication yourself."
At one point, the judge asked the room to applaud the "Participant of the Week," a middle-aged man whose commitment to the program earned him a certificate. He left the room smiling.
Other participants did not fare as well.
"I see you had a setback this week," the judge said to a woman whose drug test did not come back clean. "I want you to be successful," she added before sanctioning her to eight hours of community service.
That type of tough encouragement is what keeps the mental health court successful, said Sherry Browne-Davis, who works in the Alachua County court. "We try to empower them to make better decisions. We try to encourage rebuilding the foundation they had before they came to us," she said. "Nobody fits into one box. We really do try to look at every individual individually as well as whatever the setback is and to try and get them back on track."
The first meeting with team members to discuss referrals to Marion County's mental health court is Monday; the first court session is not until early August. Officials are eager to start.
"There is a need for social services [like mental health court] in the community, especially with the population of individuals we have. We've run into people who have had mental health issues before," Marion County Assistant State Attorney Toby Hunt said. "We see them over and over again. We're not addressing their problem. We're addressing the criminal part of it."
To McCune, the court would not have been possible without cooperation from various agencies and investment from community leaders.
"The strength of our program is that we have taken the time to get all the stakeholders finally working together," he said. "We could have put a program together on paper and said, 'Here it is, we can launch,' but it would have been superficial at best. It would have had no meat, no staying power to it."
Above all, McCune added, the significance of the community's gradual awareness of mental illness can't be overstated.
"That takes something of a sea change," he said. "I think we're coming around."