A recently implemented program is changing the way Del Norte Superior Court deals with some offenders with mental health issues.
Intensive Treatment Court (ITC) has been taking place weekly in Del Norte Superior Court since early December.
Defendants convicted of crimes and referred by a select team or its members stand before Judge William Follett. Completion of the ITC program is part of their probation requirements.
Follett said the need for such a program was recognized some time ago. He explained that after sentencing a subject to prison, the defendant’s mother said he only needed mental health services. To be referred to ITC, participants need to have been diagnosed with a mental illness that contributed to their crime and be evaluated to see if they would be successful with treatment.
Follett rounded up leaders from several other agencies, who were excited to enact the program.
“We’re trying to preserve public safety, but we all realized that with limited resources we were spending a lot of time housing mentally ill people in the jail, and thought there needed to be a better way to deal with it,” Follett said. “We thought we could save taxpayer money, and frankly, be more humane, if we started offering some services to people who really didn’t need to be housed in jail.”
Heather Snow, director of Del Norte County Health and Human Services, said team members include representatives of local law enforcement, the district attorney’s office, public defenders, HHS, probation and alcohol and other drug programs. She said the team reviews referrals, which can be made by any member of the team and everyone works together to form a plan for each participant.
“Mostly, so far, it’s been the DA and the public defenders making the referrals,” Snow said. “They’re really savvy about who would be a good candidate for the program, and typically those people are known to mental health as well.”
Each participant is given a case plan laying out their responsibilities regarding housing, medication, meetings and testing.
“Everyone isn’t treated with a cookie-cutter approach,” Follett said, “Everyone’s plan is tailored to their needs.”
After a number of meetings and information gathering, the team contacted mental health courts around the state and developed guidelines that would work best for the Del Norte County.
According to courts.ca.gov, similar mental health courts combine judicial supervision with community mental health treatment support services to reduce criminal activity and and improve the quality of life for participants.
Follett said of other programs that were evaluated, the team favored those which had methods of finding homes for participants.
“A lot of people because they are mentally ill, cannot hold down jobs or provide for their own basic needs, such as housing. A lot of them have self-medicated with drugs, so they have these co-occurring disorders with not only mental illness but there’s an overlay of substance abuse so one of the services we give is drug and alcohol (treatment).”
Asked if it’s difficult to discern between substance abuse issues and mental health issues, Snow said it can be.
“We see a lot of meth use in this population,” she said, “and a lot of long-term deficits. It gets difficult to distinguish between long-term effects and a low function cognitive state.”
However, if an assessment can be done when the individual is clean, mental health personnel can get to know them and start a regimen of medication that works for them, she said.
In the court
The atmosphere is much more casual and supportive than a typical courtroom and participants acknowledge and praise each others improvements. Follett acknowledges each participant personally and engages in some friendly conversation before discussing their case and progress.
Most report they were feeling positive and making improvements in their lives.
One new participant recently said he appreciated the program for bringing direction to his life.
“I need to be held accountable for what I do,” he said.
“Well, ITC is designed to give you plenty of structure,” Follett told him.
Follett also asks each participant about their current living situation, and whether others in the household are drinking or using drugs.
As part of their plan, each participant has to attend a number of meetings, submit to regular drug tests and meet with nurses to discuss their medications.
One woman, who had graduated from the first phase of the program, was given local theater passes by the court, which she said she could use to take her kids to the movies.
While the ITC is more casual than a typical courtroom, Follett is also firm in his directions to participants. One person failed to show and a warrant was issued for his arrest. A new participant showed promise with the program, but the probation department reported he had recently failed a drug test for marijuana. Follett admonished him for the use, saying it was not to be taken lightly as it was clearly prohibited and would interfere with his other medications. Follett assured him while he was not going to be arrested this time, the next would be different.
“I’m excited to see such a small county doing something innovative like this,” Snow said. “Not many have taken the initiative.”
Snow said she also appreciates how leaders in various agencies have come together for a common goal.
“It’s easy to feel like mental health is focused on treatment and law enforcement on law enforcement,” she said. “However, it’s been eye-opening to see that law enforcement wants to get them help and that we all want what’s best for these individuals.”
Snow said it’s been shown that when people can get treatment and have a stable living situation, they make better choices in their lives.
“Our goal is to keep people out of jail,” she said.
Reach Tony Reed at email@example.com