Mental Health Court begins in 2018

OKEECHOBEE — A new program will help keep mentally-ill persons out of jail and get them the help they need.

On Feb. 9, 2017, the Okeechobee County Commissioners began the process of creating a Mental Health Court (MHC) Program and held their first official court date Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018.

On March 23, 2017, the commissioners voted to apply for a grant in the amount of $300,000 from the Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Program from the U.S. Department of Justice. The grant seeks to increase public safety by facilitating collaboration among the criminal justice, mental health, and substance abuse treatment systems to increase access to mental health and other treatment services for individuals with mental illnesses or co-occurring mental health and substance abuse disorders.

At the July 11, 2017, Okeechobee County Public Safety Coordinating Council (PSCC) Meeting, Becky Walker from Southeast Florida Behavioral Health Network (SFBHN) addressed the members about Okeechobee County receiving the Reinvestment Act Grant.

It will be just under $400,000 a year for three years. It will cover mental health services, drug treatment, and housing so they can move people through the system a little faster and help with overcrowding in the jail.

The origin of mental health courts stemmed from situations similar to those preceding the development of drug courts — repeat offenders in need of treatment services. With community mental health resources dwindling, the courts were seeing more repeat offenders with untreated serious mental illness. Florida’s jails and prisons are not designed, equipped, or funded to deal with serious mental illness, so the creation of the mental health court model (a problem-solving court docket model) was a logical response.

Mental health courts generally share the following goals: to improve public safety by reducing criminal recidivism; to improve the quality of life of people with mental illnesses and increase their participation in effective treatment; and, to reduce court- and corrections-related costs through administrative efficiencies and often by providing an alternative to incarceration.

Monitoring and treating offenders with serious mental illness in a MHC can be more effective, efficient, and less expensive than the remedies available through traditional justice system approaches.

MHC saves lives, saves money and provides better public safety for the citizens of our communities. The court is for persons diagnosed with a severe mental illness or developmental disability, and charged with either a misdemeanor or felony.

The program provides court supervision and treatment through collaboration with state, county, and community agencies. The court is therapeutic and provides case management, therapy and other services designed to promote involvement in treatment (including therapy, substance abuse and vocational rehab) and to improve the client’s overall quality of life; promote independent living; and reduce recidivism for clients with mental health disorders.

A participant’s criminal charges may be dismissed upon successful completion of the program. Okeechobee County Sheriff Noel Stephen explained, “Upon satisfactory completion of this program, their charges go away and they are released back into the community with tools to identify and deal with the issues that caused them to commit the crime.”

The main objective of the Okeechobee MHC Program is to divert mentally ill people from jail incarceration, reduce or eliminate charges and probationary periods and reduce recidivism. The MHC benefits to the participant are that they avoid jail incarceration, eliminate loss of income, self-respect, and obstacles to obtaining or maintaining employment. Those defendants who are: adjudicated incompetent to proceed or not guilty by reason of mental disability; mentally ill, disabled, or autistic seeking diversion; obtaining a downward departure sentence and/or probation; released from custody with charges pending, meet the eligibility requirements to participate in MHC set forth in Administrative Order 2014-11.

Eligible participants will have mental health assessments performed by a case manager with an MHC judge deciding which applicants will be accepted into MHC. Assistant State Attorney Ashley Albright said, “two have entered into a plea and three other individuals are currently being reviewed” for acceptance into the MHC program. Once in MHC, the case manager will work with the judge to establish an individual plan of care for each participant. The case manager will provide guidance and oversight to each individual and encourage compliance of the plan including mandatory court appearances. The first official court date was Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. Court is held every other Wednesday.

Case management process is based on the participant’s illness/offense and includes random drug and alcohol testing, attendance at 12-step meetings, therapy and medication compliance. Quarterly reports will be prepared by the sheriff with input from Case Management and submitted to the PSCC. The PSCC will solicit input from members to evaluate effectiveness of the program and will report back to the Okeechobee Board of County Commissioners.

It is expected that a two-person team from the PSCC will attend the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge event, which recognizes that there are better, fairer and more effective alternatives to excessive jail incarceration. The Safety and Justice Challenge is supporting a network of competitively selected local jurisdictions committed to finding ways to safely reduce jail incarceration.

Jurisdictions participating in the challenge will develop and model effective ways to keep people out of jail who don’t belong there, more effectively reintegrate those who must be confined into the community upon release, and help them stay out of jail thereafter. In doing so, they will demonstrate alternatives to incarceration as usual, creating models for reducing unnecessary jail use to make communities healthier, fairer and safer.

According to a report “Improving Responses to People with Mental Illnesses: The Essential Elements of a Mental Health Court” prepared by the Council of State Governments Justice Center for the Bureau of Justice Assistance, there are 10 essential elements of mental health court design and implementation.

1) Planning and administration – A broad-based group of stakeholders representing the criminal justice, mental health, substance abuse treatment, and related systems and the community guides the planning and administration of the court.

2) Target population – Eligibility criteria address public safety and consider a community’s treatment capacity, in addition to the availability of alternatives to pretrial detention for defendants with mental illnesses. Eligibility criteria also take into account the relationship between mental illness and a defendant’s offenses, while allowing the individual circumstances of each case to be considered.

3) Timely participant identification and linkage to services – Participants are identified, referred, and accepted into mental health courts, and then linked to community-based service providers as quickly as possible.

4) Terms of participation – Terms of participation are clear, promote public safety, facilitate the defendant’s engagement in treatment, are individualized to correspond to the level of risk that the defendant presents to the community, and provide for positive legal outcomes for those individuals who successfully complete the program.

5) Informed choice – Defendants fully understand the program requirements before agreeing to participate in MHC. They are provided legal counsel to inform this decision and subsequent decisions about program involvement. Procedures exist in the MHC to address, in a timely fashion, concerns about a defendant’s competency whenever they arise.

6) Treatment supports and services – The MHC connect participants to comprehensive and individualized treatment supports and services in the community. They strive to use and increase the availability of treatment and services that are evidence based.

7) Confidentiality – Health and legal information should be shared in a way that protects potential participants’ confidentiality rights as mental health consumers and their constitutional rights as defendants. Information gathered as part of the participants’ court-ordered treatment program or services should be safeguarded in the event that participants are returned to traditional court processing.

8) Court team – A team of criminal justice and mental health staff and service and treatment providers receives special, ongoing training and helps MHC participants achieve treatment and criminal justice goals by regularly reviewing and revising the court process.

9) Monitoring adherence to court requirements – Criminal justice and mental health staff collaboratively monitor participants’ adherence to court conditions, offer individualized graduated incentives and sanctions, and modify treatment as necessary to promote public safety and participants’ recovery.

10) Sustainability – Data are collected and analyzed to demonstrate the impact of the MHC, its performance is assessed periodically (and procedures are modified accordingly), court processes are institutionalized, and support for the court in the community is cultivated and expanded.

The goals of these elements are to make communities healthier and safer, promote the efficient use of public resources and tax dollars, and improve outcomes for people with mental illnesses who are involved in the criminal justice system.

Chief Judge for the 19th Judicial Circuit of Florida, Elizabeth A. Metzger, reportedly volunteered to preside over MHC in Okeechobee County to get it started, according to a Feb. 10 article in the Okeechobee News.

Looking to the future, Sheriff Stephen said there are “goals set forth to develop a halfway house – funded by the inhabitants – to provide a place for these individuals to stay, find a job, do their counseling, go to MHC and be productive citizens after they complete the program.

“The overall goal of MHC, Drug Court and Veteran’s Court – the next objective – is to identify these classes of people and give them the tools they need to be successful and not re-offend” alleviating the burden to the taxpayers, summarized Sheriff Stephen.

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