Traverse City Record-Eagle

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August 6, 2009

Court program addresses mental illness

Jail is last resort for mentally ill who opt to enroll

TRAVERSE CITY -- Officials continue to iron out kinks in a new court program designed to oversee criminal defendants with mental health concerns.

Eighty-Sixth District Court in Grand Traverse County launched a grant-funded mental health court in February. It's meant to add an extra layer of support for defendants who are competent to stand trial but suffer from severe depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or other illnesses.

"Traditionally, you would put these people in jail, and jail does nothing to assist them with what their problem is," Court Administrator Carol Stocking said.

The program's first year is funded by about $107,000 in grants from the State Court Administrator's Office and the state Department of Community Health. Only about 10 such programs exist across the state.

The court will have to reapply for funding in subsequent years.

Defendants flagged by court staffers as having possible mental problems are given the option of enrolling in the voluntary program. They plead guilty to their crime and are sentenced to up to two years of participation in the program, which acts as probation with several added layers of support.

They meet with probation officer Jeff Payne and District Judge John D. Foresman once a week, and a support team consisting of staffers from Community Mental Health, Addiction Treatment Services, Catholic Human Services, Goodwill and more is tasked with monitoring each defendant's progress and advising the judge on appropriate probation measures.

In some cases, the defendant is given a delayed sentence and will have charges dismissed upon successful completion of the program.

About six people are in the system now. The court runs a similar program, dubbed Sobriety Court, for those with substance abuse problems.

Foresman and other officials said jail is a last resort for those who violate terms of probation. But defendants must be held accountable if they violate probation terms, and officials are still figuring out ways to dole out compassionate authority.

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