Graduates of mental-health court stay out of jail longer

Published September 22, 2008 1:43 am
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Offenders sent to mental-health court stay out of trouble longer than mentally ill defendants prosecuted in traditional courtrooms, according to a new report.

One year after leaving mental-health court, participants had cut their arrests and jail bookings in half, a study by the Utah Criminal Justice Center at the University of Utah found.

The Salt Lake County court was started in 2001 as an alternative to traditional courts, which are not designed to provide specialized rehabilitation and treatment.

The report tracked participants from the past seven years. It showed they improved their use of medications and pursued more treatment for illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

"I know very few mentally ill people who get up and say 'I'm going to do a criminal act today,' " said Salt Lake City Prosecutor Sim Gill, who was a catalyst for establishing the program. "For many, criminal conduct is a result of their mental illness."

But the report also showed success is short-lived. Defendants on average spend 18 months in the court, but when their term ends, they usually offend again at a rate that rises with each year. For those who don't graduate, the rate rises even faster.

Still, officials say the court is cost-effective because those it reaches are not in jail as often, are committing fewer crimes and are having less contact with police and medical staff.

'They're like family': Those sent to the court are kept busy and must continue to take their medications, Gill said. Most are required to take classes once or twice a week with Valley Mental Health or the National Alliance on Mental Illness, pass weekly drug tests and meet with their probation officer.

On Mondays, most participants check in with Judge Judith Atherton, who oversees the court at the Matheson Courthouse in downtown Salt Lake City. She tracks all offenders' conduct during the previous week and his or her progress toward graduation.

As the judge finishes each review, she, the bailiffs and others in court burst into applause - encouragement to stay on course another week.

"They're like family in this court," said Martin Grondahl, 39, of Salt Lake City, who started with the court about six months ago. He has had numerous stints at the Salt Lake County jail.

"They want to help you and keep you in line," he said. "If it weren't for them, I'd be probably out doing drugs."

The court offers incentives: Felony offenders who graduate after three years of court visits, drug and alcohol treatment and consistent medication use may get their charge reduced to a misdemeanor. In minor cases, sometimes the charge is dropped.

"They treat you for your disease," Grondahl said, "not for just the crime you did."

Supporting stable lives: The court also helps participants find stable homes because they often lack consistent housing, regular access to medication and support services. Of the 263 offenders who have been through the court since 2001, about 22 percent were homeless at some point.

"If a person is living on the street and doesn't know where their next meal is coming from or where they will sleep, getting access to medication is secondary," Gill said.

Alan Rice, the court's clinical director, said its objective is to make sure people have the resources to lead normal lives. "Our whole goal is to wrap enough services around them that when they leave the court, they are still receiving treatment and have housing so that they don't come back into the criminal justice system," he said.

Mental-health advocates find the report encouraging, but say the program is still not large enough to include the number of people who need it. Officials are seeking additional state funding, Rice said.

"Dollar for dollar, we are getting a greater return back than if we were not following this model," Gill said. "If the compassionate argument doesn't win policy makers over, the fiscal argument does."


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