A court focused on cases involving defendants with mental health issues will open in Frederick County in the next few weeks thanks to a grant from the state’s Judicial Council Committee on Specialty Courts.
Similar to the Frederick County Drug Treatment Court launched in 2005, the mental health court will be a voluntary, post-plea, pre-sentence program for people who pass a vigorous vetting system, according to Charlie Smith, the county state’s attorney.
The $100,000 grant will fund the first fiscal year of the program. The grant will pay the salary for a mental health court coordinator and clinician to oversee the program and investigate the eligibility of applicants, all of whom will have misdemeanor offenses that can be proved to stem from an underlying mental illness.
Smith said he envisions the program will last approximately 12 months for first-time offenders accused of misdemeanors, with slightly longer terms for repeat offenders.
While the county health department’s Behavioral Health Services Division was instrumental in getting the mental health court up and running, a number of private mental health service providers also expressed interest in getting involved.
“We plan on sourcing these individuals to the most appropriate treatment, whether that’s a treatment program with a county agency or a community agency. A lot of it will depend on the specific and individual needs of each participant,” Smith said, adding that, for the moment, each participant’s treatment will have to be funded by their own health care coverage.
Ideally, the program will better serve both the offenders and the judicial system by addressing the underlying root of the criminal behavior rather than focusing on punishment.
“We’ve seen over and over again the evidence that jail time and traditional punishment isn’t a deterrent for these individuals,” Smith said. “Many times we will charge these individuals with a crime, prosecute them, and as soon as they’re back out on the streets, they will act up again.”
Smith also hopes the program will have a positive financial impact by reducing the number of people incarcerated for short periods of time and, in the long term, ending what he referred to as the “revolving door” of people with mental illness cycling in and out of the criminal justice system.
In the last three years in Frederick County, in terms of cases involving defendants with mental illness, just 36 people accounted for 845 cases with an average of about 23 cases per person, according to the state’s attorney’s office’s case management system. Those numbers alone demonstrated a clear need to address recidivism, according to a press release issued Friday by the state’s attorney’s office.
Another share of the state’s funding will pay for a part-time public defender to staff the court, said Mary Riley, the district public defender, who also approved of a program designed to accommodate offenders in need of mental health treatment.
“I think it will be very helpful,” Riley said. “We have a lot of clients who are repeat offenders, and a lot of them have mental illness diagnoses, and a lot of them self–medicate with drugs and alcohol. If you can help these people with treatment and services ... I just don’t think jail is the answer for a lot of these minor offenses or technical assaults.”
The maximum number of participants in the court will start at between 10 and 15 a year, increasing steadily until full capacity is reached, likely at around 30 participants in several years, Smith said.
The new program will likely begin screening applicants in the fall, after the coordinator and clinician and public attorney position are filled, according to the state’s attorney’s office’s press release.