Traverse City Record-Eagle

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April 13, 2013

Bringing a new mindset to court

TRAVERSE CITY— Pat Merkel says mental health court turned her life around.

She landed in the courtroom in late 2010, after shots of vodka led to fuzzy thinking at a K-Mart. She walked out of the store to check on a ride but forgot to leave her shopping cart inside. She was charged with shoplifting.

Since then, Merkel has been “clean.” She works a part-time retail job and lives in a cozy apartment with a therapy dog that helps calm her anxiety. Most importantly, she regained partial custody of her son. She wants to serve as a court mentor when she gets her driver’s license back.

“I liked going there,” she said. “They told me all the good things I was doing.”

Mental health court is one of three specialty 86th District courts that also include sobriety and veterans courts. The public can attend an April 24 open house at 7:45 a.m. to see how the courts work. Attendees can then watch actual hearings and graduations in sobriety court starting at 8:15 a.m.

Specialty courts are voluntary; they allow those convicted of a misdemeanor or felony (in the case of sobriety court) to avoid jail time. With some misdemeanors a case can be dismissed entirely.

The prosecutor must approve those who enter a specialty court. Mental health probationers typically suffer from depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or a developmental disability.

“The thinking is instead of sentencing someone to jail right off the bat, let’s address the underlying problem,” said Judge Michael Stepka, who presides over the mental health court.

Unlike sobriety court, the mental health court doesn’t see the same robust rate of success, said Judge Mike Haley, who has overseen all three specialty courts.

“It can’t because you’re working with such a different population,” Haley said. “But cutting jail time and getting people to treatment — it feels like the right thing.”

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