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VOL. 131 | NO. 24 | Wednesday, February 3, 2016

New Mental Health Court Aims for Intervention

By Madeline Faber

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At any given time, around 525 of the people jailed at 201 Poplar have a persistent mental illness. That’s means 25 percent of the jail’s capacity, and exponential care and liability, are directed to people who commit crimes as a byproduct of illness.

These people need help, and the Shelby County Justice Center is addressing Memphis’ nonviolent, repeat offenders with its newly established mental health court.

“It’s not like regular court. It’s judicial mental health treatment is what it is,” said Judge Gerald Skahan, who will preside over the mental health cases in addition to his general sessions docket.

The new court held a grand opening on Tuesday, Feb. 2, following a run-through that began on Jan. 5.

Individuals with a criminal charge come to mental health court voluntarily, either through a public defender’s recommendation or a pre-trial screening.

“A lot of these records are already available, and we want to fast track it within a matter of days,” Skahan said. “Get them out of jail and into case management with rules they have to follow and a contract to sign.”

Instead of being sent to jail for nuisance crimes such as sleeping in the park, shoplifting or public drunkenness, the participants are paired with a caseworker for a year-long period, with the goal of having the charge expunged. Those with a history of violent crimes are not eligible.

Participants are connected with bus passes, literacy and job training services, drug and alcohol treatment, and even housing and in-patient care. Caseworkers will meet with them at least once a week to make sure the participants are making appointments and taking medicine.

“There’s a gap there,” Skahan said. “They can’t get everything they need or are entitled to because the services are hard to find, they’re in jail or they’re transient, or they’re mentally ill and not taking medicine.”

The premise of mental health court is similar to Shelby County’s veterans court and drug court, which connect individuals with intervention services instead of incarceration.

“But veterans court and drug court use sanctions, like if you fail a drug test you go back to jail,” explained Skahan. “Those sanctions don’t work in mental health court, because honestly people don’t care. Jail is better than what’s on the street.”

Skahan said that mental health court will start off on one day a week and could successfully work with 35 mentally ill participants in its first year.

“The clients are there. It’s a matter of how big are the resources.”

Skahan said most of the funding is coming from two state grants totaling $205,000 and from Tennessee’s Behavioral Health Safety Net funds, so there’s no additional cost to taxpayers.

Redirecting participants away from jail also will bring a huge cost benefit to the justice system, which Skahan says is “bogged down” with repeat offenders. One person staying out of jail for a year could save the system thousands of dollars.

“It frees up more room in courts and jails, and lets us concentrate on the people that are the hardcore criminals,” Skahan said. “A good way to learn how to be a criminal is go to jail, and this is an option to do something that hasn’t been done.”

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