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August 13, 2006

Mental Health Court offers treatment as alternative to jail

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.

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