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Pilot-project mental health court set to to come to Juneau

Posted: March 2, 2012 - 12:12am

Beginning in April, people with mental health issues who are charged with a city misdemeanor will have a new option available to them instead of just a lock and key and time behind bars.

It’s a pilot project, funded with a little bit of seed money from the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, to bring a mental health court to Juneau.

The aim, says Juneau District Court Judge Keith Levy, who will be presiding over the new “problem-solving court,’”is to coordinate resources to address the issues particular to those with mental health problems that keep landing them back in the criminal justice system.

“Traditionally, we’re just not dealing with those issues, and that’s often times at least a good part of why they’re there,” Levy said in an interview Thursday.

Rather than throwing the book at repeat offenders time and time again, the mental health court, also called the Juneau Coordinated Resources Project, focuses on treatment and rehabilitation. It also can reduce or eliminate the criminal penalties imposed by the court.

“Part of it is the idea of ending the revolving door,” said Kendall Merry, the program coordinator for Juneau Therapeutic Court. “A lot of the folks in this population are in on a very regular basis, mainly for minor offenses — disorderly conduct, trespassing, other minor offenses like that. And often they’ll miss their hearings, they won’t be in compliance, and so they may be in violation of their probation. So a lot of it just tends to keep snowballing.”

The program will be open to any Juneau resident who is charged with a city misdemeanor crime who is diagnosed with a mental illness or disability, defined as a beneficiary of the Alaska Mental Health Trust, who is eligible for treatment and wishes to voluntarily participate in lieu of traditional District Court criminal case processing. It will be able to accommodate about 15 people at any given time.

Anyone can refer a person to the court — police, corrections staff, friends, family, community behavioral health providers, judges and court staff.

The way it will works, Merry says, is that each defendant will be assigned a case manager, provided by the Alaska Department of Health & Social Services Division of Behavioral Health. (That’s what the $15,000 seed money was for, he said.)

The case manager will be responsible for assisting the defendant in obtaining assessments and linking them to community services to meet their individual needs, whether it be housing, food or employment.

Meanwhile, the court will provide extra supervision and hands-on monitoring of the treatment plan through regularly held post-sentencing status hearings. That’s in contrast to regular District Court which does not require active monitoring of regular misdemeanor probation.

If there are problems with treatment, the court can adjust the plan, employ non-jail-based sanctions, or as a last resort, impose jail time for non-compliance or risk to public safety.

This will be Alaska’s third mental court — Anchorage and Palmer both have successful programs, Levy said.

“I just think that there’s a lot of actual evidence to show that these kinds of things are much more effective in reducing recidivism and dealing with these problems than just locking people up frankly,” Levy said. “And from a judge’s perspective, it’s a lot more satisfying. It’s very frustrating to see the same people coming to court with the same problems and nobody’s really addressing those problems.”

The court is a great step in the right direction, says Katie Chapman, the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Juneau (NAMI). In line with the new court, NAMI-Juneau sponsored a speech Thursday evening at the Dimond Courthouse by author and mental illness advocate Peter Earley. Earley, a former Washington Post reporter, penned “Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness” after his son, now 33, was diagnosed with a mental illness in his early 20s.

Earley said nation wide, there are 600,000 people with schizophrenia, major depression and bipolar disorder in jails and prisons; 1 million on probation; and more than a million that go through the criminal justice system every year.

He noted that the largest public mental facility in the United States today is not a treatment center. It’s the Los Angeles County Jail.

“And if you think Alaska is above all these problems, think again,” he said. “A recent study found that if you have a mental illness in Alaska, the chances of you going to jail or getting help are 4 to 1. You have a better chance of going to jail than you have getting help.”

One way to make a difference in your community is with a mental health court, Earley said.

“The other way to do it is you wait and a police officer gets killed or someone with mental illness gets killed, and the community gets upset,” he said.

He stressed that in order to ease the crisis, it takes a whole community.

“The biggest reformers in the mental health movement today are not mental health advocates. They are judges, sheriffs and police departments because they are forcing our system, trying to stop people from ending up in jails or prisons.”

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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