By Tom Blakey
Transcript Staff Writer
When people with mental illnesses are arrested for trespassing, shoplifting and other nonviolent offenses in Cleveland County, they no longer will be automatically sentenced to prison or probation, where their illness likely would go untreated.
Instead — if they meet the eligibility criteria — they can opt for a court specifically designed to give them treatment, supervision and support.
The program is the Cleveland County Anna McBride Mental Health Court — part of a growing national trend to divert nonviolent offenders with mental health problems from jail into treatment.
The mental court commenced operations last week, as district judges Bill Hetherington and Jequita Napoli began “pleading” defendants into the alternative sentencing program.
“This is a big step in how we deal with those people who have been identified as having mental illness and who end up in the court system,” Hetherington said. “We now have at least four people who are actually participating in the Anna McBride Mental Health Court. Thirteen are in the pre-assessment screening process. And four have been denied by the Anna McBride Mental Health Court staffing team.”
Officials anticipate “30 to 35 possible participants in the mental health court’s first six months,” Hetherington said.
Cleveland County’s mental health court is the fourth in the state to begin operations. Mental health courts were established in Oklahoma County, Seminole County and McCurtain County, after the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services was awarded a Bureau of Justice Assistance Grant in April 2003 to establish and support mental health courts.
Hetherington said the DMHSAS receives $10,000 annually to administer the Cleveland County Anna McBride Mental Health Court.
“As mental health courts began to emerge in Oklahoma, they adopted the name of Anna McBride, a tireless legislative advocate for the mentally ill,” Hetherington said.
McBride, who died in 2003, served as president of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill at both the local and national levels.
Traditionally, mental health courts serve as an alternative to incarceration for people with a diagnosed mental illness — schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or severe depression — charged with a misdemeanor or non-violent felony.
Participants must agree to plead guilty to their crime and have no history of violence. Eligibility is dependent upon approval of the district attorney’s office, the Department of Mental Health and the treatment team.
“Once the defendant pleads guilty, he or she is deviated into a participation contract with the Anna McBride Mental Health Court. Like drug court, mental health court is a true deviation court, with the district attorney acting as gatekeeper,” Hetherington said.
Assistant District Attorney Dave Batton said the mental health court uses a “team concept,” bringing together prosecutors, defense attorneys, district court officials, treatment providers, local law enforcement officers and mental health workers to coordinate participants’ treatment plans.
“Participants are in the program for varying lengths of time,” Batton said. “It’s an individualized program, because each participant has different needs and requirements.
“We will evaluate each case on an individual basis. No one person will be making the decisions, although the district attorney’s office will have the ultimate say-so,” Batton said.
Mental health court participants will appear before Hetherington or Napoli each week, and assessments will be made of current physical and mental health conditions, living conditions, employment status, compliance with medication orders, counseling requirements and other terms and conditions. The participants will be supervised through Oklahoma Court Services and be required to submit to drug testing, Batton said.
“Mental health court is a tiered step process, and once participants reach a certain point, they may not have to come in to court every week,” he said. After mental health court requirements are met over a lengthy period, the criminal case can ultimately be dismissed.
Mental health court differs from drug court in that the defendants make a “blind plea” prior to their participation in the program. If the defendant cannot complete the requirements of mental health court, the judge has a wide range of discretion in resolution of the criminal case.
“If that person is not able to complete the contract, but is not a danger to the community, there may be something more appropriate than just sending them to the Department of Corrections,” Batton said.
Drug court statutes allow the judge no such discretion.
“Mental health courts are structured differently because of the nature of the problem,” Batton said.
The Oklahoma Department of Corrections indicates 8,500 state inmates have mental health needs. Records show that 57 percent of inmates with mental illnesses were incarcerated for non-violent offenses.
“Our state’s jails and prisons have, by default, become institutions for people with untreated mental illness,” said Terry Cline, DMHSAS commissioner.
Oklahoma has enjoyed growing success with drug court programs and DMHSAS officials say mental health court results are comparable.
Records show a 76.9 percent decrease in arrests among mental health court graduates, and an 80 percent decrease in unemployment between admission and graduation.
Drug court graduates also have been found to have:
• A 59.7 percent increase in income (104.7 percent increase for females and 51.4 percent for males)
• A 20.4 percent increase in children living with their parents.
Batton said mental health court programs not only result in a better chance of recovery for the person with the illness, but also “a tremendous savings for taxpayers.”
A year and half into their mental health court program, Oklahoma County officials estimated a savings of $15,000 per year for every defendant who went to treatment instead of jail.
“Mental health courts provide us with an alternative that takes advantage of community resources, and takes the burden off the criminal justice system,” Batton said.
Hetherington said there’s a particularly significant need for a mental health court in Norman, where a large state mental health facility is located.
“District court is appreciative of the cooperation and assistance of the Department of Mental Health and Legislature in recognizing the need to fill a big void in Cleveland County, as it relates to how we deal in more creative ways with the mentally ill who commit criminal offenses,” Hetherington said.
By Tom Blakey
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