Traverse City Record-Eagle

August 6, 2009

Court program addresses mental illness

Jail is last resort for mentally ill who opt to enroll

BY ART BUKOWSKI

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.

"One of our problems is trying to come up with other sanctions that are meaningful and will have some effect," Foresman said.

Grawn resident Andrew Merchant, 25, was arrested this year for drug possession, his fourth arrest since 2001. He said he struggles with multiple mental illnesses and views the program as a potential live-saving experience.

"I've got to get a hold of it now before it gets a hold of me, and if this is what I have to do to fix it, I will," he said. "I look at it as help, I don't look at it as punishment."

Merchant is performing well and making solid progress in the program, Foresman said.