Suffering post-traumatic stress disorder after surviving two consecutive violent relationships, West Olive resident Makenzie Scimeca committed the crime of second-degree home invasion.
Facing a 15-year felony charge, Scimeca had two options: prison or the 57th District Mental Health Court in Allegan County.
Scimeca chose the latter in November 2014, completing a one-year course of individual and group therapy and biweekly and monthly reviews in court. She said it has made a “night and day difference” in her life. Now holding down a hotel job while studying to be an esthetician, Scimeca has a 10-month-old daughter and a healthy relationship with her current fiancé.
Similar success stories of problem-solving courts across the state of Michigan have prompted Kent County to examine whether a mental health court for the 17th Circuit would be feasible and could produce comparable positive outcomes.
The Kent County Board of Commissioners last month approved a $33,000 mental health court planning grant from the State Court Administrative Office to be used by the 17th Circuit Court, in collaboration with community mental health authority Network180, to evaluate the need for such a program and how services would best be delivered.
As required by the grant, staff representing the 17th Circuit Court, local district court, Network180, county prosecutor, sheriff’s office, public defender’s office, mental health services providers and the county administration will participate in the project planning committee.
Scott Gilman, executive director of Network180, will be on the committee. He approached the 17th Circuit Court about nine months ago with the idea, pointing to the success of mental health courts in Kalamazoo and Genesee counties.
“All too often, we see people that, due to their symptoms, are ending up going in the wrong direction into the criminal justice system and jail, and we know that (mental health court) treatment works,” he said. “So, if we can intervene earlier and get people the resources they need, we can avoid them going down the path of their illness getting worse.”
James Hughes, former regional administrator for the Michigan Supreme Court, will coordinate the study on a contractual basis under the direction of 17th Circuit Court Administrator Andrew Thalhammer.
Thalhammer said all of the committee members have questions about mental health courts, and after reviewing reports in various journals and discussing the matter, the committee will do site visits to Kalamazoo and Genesee counties’ mental health courts to learn more.
“A lot of people, as we go forward, have certain questions about what they’re responsible for and what the best way to do all of it is,” he said. “A judge may have a question about if we go forward as an adult mental health court, will there be prison guidelines we still need to follow? Community safety will be first and foremost.”
He said the committee plans to look at factors such as capacity, array of services the 17th Circuit can provide, how much time it will take, whether there will be enough space on the docket to handle a mental health court and how to ensure due process and adequate consideration for the defense and prosecution.
“If we decide to go forward, we’ll apply for an implementation grant,” Thalhammer said. “The Michigan Supreme Court seems to be in favor of problem-solving courts, and there has been money available, but that will be a factor going forward.”
The study is expected to be completed by Sept. 30 to allow development of a proposal for an implementation grant during fiscal year 2018, if recommended by the planning committee and accepted by the court and the appropriate funding unit.
Joseph Skocelas, the 57th District Mental Health Court judge who presided over Scimeca’s case, said he has overseen Allegan County’s mental health court since it was established in 2009, and he couldn’t be more pleased with the results. The court recently celebrated its 80th graduate.
“We’ve had some people who have had remarkable changes just from getting treatment and taking relatively low doses of psychiatric medication,” he said.
He explained that problem-solving courts, unlike regular criminal courts, look to deal with the underlying causes, setting attainable goals and building life-changing relationships with the offenders.
“The main difference between any problem-solving court and the regular criminal process is they may come into district court with a plea, I accept it and they’re sentenced. My contact with them is brief. The only ones I get to know are repeat offenders,” he said.
“With mental health court, the reason they’re here is because of this underlying problem. It’s to treat the underlying thing that’s causing contact with the criminal justice system. It’s treatment instead of punishment. And it’s totally voluntary.”
Skocelas said the prosecutor’s office refers certain offenders to the program, and the court’s mental health coordinator, Kristi Compagner of Allegan County Community Mental Health, screens all candidates to determine if they are clinically eligible — that is, if they are “seriously and persistently mentally ill.”
The 57th District does not offer the program to violent offenders or those convicted for criminal sexual conduct.
Skocelas said the most common types of mental health issues he sees include bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder and anxiety disorders.
He said the court also sees car or motorcycle accident victims dealing with brain damage, as well as those with congenital intellectual disabilities.
“I would say anywhere from a quarter to a third of the people in the program … have an intellectual disability,” Skocelas said. “(Often it’s) people in their 30s functioning with a 12- or 13-year-old’s brain. They get in trouble, and they’re not so much a criminal as they are living with a disability.”
While the 57th District Court does not keep detailed records on recidivism rates of the mental health court participants for legal reasons, Skocelas said he knows the program costs far less than incarceration and helps prevent future crimes.
“The ones who’ve come back usually are the ones with both mental health and substance abuse issues,” he said. “The vast majority we never see again.”
Except for perpetrators of violent crimes, Scimeca said she believes many of the people currently incarcerated would be less likely to commit another crime if they went to mental health court instead of jail.
“There’s a lot of people who are sitting in prison who could have benefited from this program,” she said. “All sitting in prison does is make a person more crazy. We should be trying other routes instead of (prison). How often do you see people come out of prison and become repeat offenders?”
“Basically, I was hanging with the wrong crowd and it slowly ruined my life. It took something like this to put me in check and give me a purpose to do better.
“It’s so important to take these programs into consideration and give them a fair shot. There are people succeeding in life because of them. It needs to be talked about; it needs to be heard.”