‘In-your-face’ help for mentally ill offenders


A three-year evaluation of 10 Michigan mental health courts finds that participants re-offend at significantly lower levels than comparable groups of criminal offenders who do not participate in the mental health courts.

The evaluation, which was conducted by the State Court Administrative Office, found that one year after starting the program, mental health court participants’ recidivism rate was 300 percent lower compared to similar offenders. The difference persisted even after the courts no longer supervised the offenders: 30 months later, more than a year after graduation, participants had a recidivism rate of slightly less than 19 percent, compared to more than 43 percent of the comparison group.

Mental health court participants also enjoyed improved mental health, education and job outcomes, the survey finds.

“The results show that mental health courts have reduced recidivism, improved medication compliance, improved quality of life, and assisted participants in averaging over 300 days of continuous sobriety prior to graduation,” the SCAO report states. The mental health courts show good outcomes even for mentally ill offenders with substance abuse problems, who “are generally believed to be especially difficult to rehabilitate,” the report adds.

State Court Administrator Chad C. Schmucker said the survey, which followed 331 mental health court graduates, provides “evidence that these programs really do work.”

“The central premise of mental health courts is that, by addressing the offender’s mental health issues, we can prevent future crimes and also help the offender become a contributing member of society,” said Schmucker.

Counties with mental health courts include Allegan, Berrien, Cheboygan/Presque Isle, Genesee (adult and juvenile), Grand Traverse (adult and juvenile), Jackson, Kalamazoo, Livingston, Montcalm, Muskegon, Oakland, Saginaw, St. Clair, and Wayne.

However, that does not mean mentally ill offenders from Kent and Ottawa counties do not benefit from mental health courts, which were established in Michigan beginning in 2008 and 2009.

“We don’t have any restrictions on just having Allegan County residents,” said Joseph Skocelas, chief judge of the Allegan County District Court. He said the Allegan County Mental Health Court currently is handling offenders who are from Kent, Ottawa, Barry, Van Buren and Kalamazoo counties.

Skocelas, in addition to being chief judge in Allegan County, also presides over the Allegan Mental Health Court and is emphatic that it really works for the offender and the community.

The theory behind mental health courts is the same one that led to the creation in Michigan of sobriety and drug courts. In those cases, it was long apparent that many criminal offenders probably would not get in trouble if it were not for serious alcohol and drug addictions. Those courts focus on getting those individuals help as part of the judicial process.

The clinical requirement for participation in a mental health court is that the offender must be seriously and persistently mentally ill with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, psychosis or severe depression. Some of the offenders are developmentally disabled.

The individual’s illness or disability must be a condition similar to diabetes in that “you’re living with it the rest of your life. It isn’t going to go away,” said Skocelas.

He said mental health court is a voluntary option for offenders. Many are referred by prosecutors, defense attorneys and even judges when it becomes apparent the accused will probably keep on repeating relatively minor offensive behavior because of underlying mental illness or disability.

The “big difference” with a mental health court is that in addition to the traditional professionals involved, there are also participants from the county’s Community Mental Health Department, along with a substance abuse service for drug testing and counseling, since substance abuse is often part of the offender’s problem, Skocelas said.

Offenders who will not voluntarily enter the mental health court process are then subject to the normal criminal prosecution and may end up in jail.

In one way, mental health court is more demanding on the offender than regular criminal court.

“The main thing is, they have to be involved in treatment,” said Skocelas. If they never had treatment, it must begin, or if they had it and quit it, it must resume. Then the offender has to report to Skocelas at the Allegan County Courthouse every other Monday afternoon.

“It’s kind of an upfront, in-your-face monitoring,” said Skocelas, “because we watch them. Even (offenders) on probation or parole don’t check in that often with a probation or parole officer.”

The mental health court program lasts one year; the offender reports to court every two weeks during the first six months, and if she or he “graduates” from phase one, the second six-month phase requires a court appearance only once a month.

Phase two happens “when they’ve shown us they’re doing what they are supposed to do,” in terms of treatment. That includes staying away from street drugs and alcohol.

Skocelas said it often becomes apparent mentally ill or disabled offenders lead lives with no structure. Many don’t hold a job and spend their days at home, doing nothing but watching television. So the court also tries to help the individual either find a job or work as a volunteer in the community, or gets the person back into school to complete a GED or work on a college degree.

“I push them right to the max of their capabilities,” Skocelas said. We’ve had people that obtained their first job while they were in the program because I pushed them into it. We’ve had some who have gotten back into school.”

Some of the offenders find work and are able to get their own apartment for the first time. “There are a lot of firsts,” said Skocelas.

The mentally affected offenders usually have been in trouble before and are often terrified when they enter his courtroom the first time, he said, because their previous experience in the court system was “punishment, punishment, punishment.” In the mental health court, it is made clear to them that the court wants to help them.

Not everyone succeeds, concedes Skocelas. But he said his court officials have estimated that in one year, the Allegan County Mental Health Court helps reduce the load on the penal system by about 1,000 jail bed days.

“People who would probably have been locked up for a big chunk of time are now out working or doing volunteer work for the community, so they’re not taking from the community; they’re putting back into it,” he said.

Skocelas recalls the offender who was told he had “graduated” from the mental health court program and there would be a simple ceremony. The man, who had some mental disability, showed up wearing a cap and gown. Skocelas said he thought at first he “was being a wise guy.” Then he realized the individual was serious; he had borrowed the gap and gown from a relative and was so happy he had graduated that he was determined to show up in proper attire.

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