Mentally Ill Sent to Mental Health Courts
Mon Apr 25, 2005
By SAMIRA JAFARI, Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. - At 16, Kimberly Hudson was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but medication was not prescribed because of her age. The next few years were a nightmare of mood swings that she tempered with marijuana and cocaine, until drug and theft charges landed her in court.

But an Alabama judge realized jail time would do little for the teen. Instead, Hudson was put on five years' probation and ordered a regimen of counseling, proper medication and private meetings on the steps of the Montgomery County courthouse.

Circuit Judge Tracy McCooey called it her personal "mental health court."

Instead of jail, many people who suffer mental illness and commit crimes are being sent to mental health courts, modeled after the more than 500 drug courts nationwide that offer substance abuse counseling over prison time.

"That day in court I could have said, 'Here you go, here's your jail sentence,'" McCooey said, recalling Hudson's case. "But you've got to go beyond."

Last month, Hudson was released from probation early, and is now training to be an accountant. Her success has helped spur the founding of McCooey's formal mental health court, one of five in Alabama and some 90 in the country that offer an alternative approach to sentencing offenders.

For Hudson, who is completing courses at Troy University, the decision made by McCooey was a turning point.

"I was just being a heathen, doing whatever you can to get your drugs," Hudson said. "It has really gotten better. I got in school two years ago. I'm coming to work and being there every day, and not being so impulsive any more."

The mental health courts in Montgomery and Jefferson counties accept mentally ill defendants charged with felonies, while those in Madison County help people charged with misdemeanors. All work only with nonviolent, non-sex offenders who have been prescreened and diagnosed by a state mental health expert.

The biggest challenge reported by mental health officials is targeting potential candidates as early as possible, according to a Bureau of Justice Assistance report on mental health courts. Such intervention avoids "the damaging experience of arrest and confinement" while helping to stabilize the offender medically and provide support.

As with any court, there are consequences for noncompliance. Defendants are expected to stick to their ordered treatment of prescriptions, counseling and, sometimes, substance abuse prevention courses. If they don't, "then they have to go to prison," McCooey said.

The mental health dockets for the courts are relatively low — less than a dozen a month for the Alabama courts. But judges report a high success rate with only a handful returning to the program or ending up in jail.

Most offenders are not taking or never received medication to treat mental disorders, typically variations of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or both. "They don't think clearly" and act impulsively, said Municipal Judge Cybil Cleveland, who runs the mental health court in Huntsville.

Shoplifting, trespassing, disorderly conduct, break-ins and drug abuse are the most common cases.

"It's a real intense supervision program," said Judge Mac Parsons, who oversees one of the state's mental health courts. "I don't want to believe we put people in jail whose basic problem is that they're sick."

It takes a lot of cooperation from counselors, prosecutors, families — and especially the defendants. The state programs are only about a year old, and still working out glitches, such as funding and staffing shortages, tracking down homeless defendants, and making sure the participants take their medications and continue counseling.

Officials, however, said the results are worth the extra hours and money issues.

And, judges have noticed that when mentally ill defendants follow the treatments, they no longer have run-ins with the law.

"It's hard for our society to come around to it," Parsons said, "but we're seeing people who get in trouble and the real root cause isn't because they're mean or don't have a conscience. It's because they may never have gotten medication or gotten the right one."

On the Net
Bureau of Justice Assistance report on mental health courts: (Note: requires Adobe Acrobat Reader plugin)