Traverse City Record-Eagle

April 13, 2013

Bringing a new mindset to court

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — 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.”

A statewide Supreme Court study reported about 38 percent of mental health court participants committed a repeat offense after 30 months. That compares to 46.7 percent in traditional court. The data shows courts are “trending” toward making an impact, the study said.

Stepka conceded there are challenges. While giving an interview about mental health court, he was interrupted and asked to sign a bench warrant for an offender who left a profane phone message for a community mental health employee.

“So unfortunately, he graduated and re-offended. Occasionally that happens,” Stepka said.

The mental health court sees up to 30 probationers each year at a cost of about $153,600, with a state grant paying $128,666. That’s offset by the cost of jail time, Stepka said.

“Many of the people, before they got into this program, have spent days, even months in jail,” Stepka said. “This program saves jail beds, which at $20 a day, is huge.”

The program isn’t easy. Probationers’ schedules are packed with weekly tasks, such as attending AA meetings, taking drug tests, and counseling. Early on, they must appear each week before the judge.

“It’s very burdensome,” and it’s meant to be, said Mark Risk, a defense attorney who sits on the sobriety and mental health court teams.

“The judge is like a father figure who sets strong expectations and boundaries,” he said. “(That is) something a lot of these people may not have grown up with at home.”

Stepka said success comes with a strong rapport and changing behavior over a long period of time.

“It’s a different mindset really,” he said.

Criminal justice sanctions are always there, but this is a “court of hope and a court of encouragement,” said Anthony Carolan, who works on the mental health court’s advisory team as a community mental health liaison.

There were more sanctions issued than rewards at a Mental Health Court proceeding last week — an anomaly, Stepka said.

A young veteran, wearing an orange jail jumpsuit, was “sentenced” to rehab at a Veterans Administration facility after drinking in March. A young woman was sanctioned for her YouTube demonstration on “How I Roll.” But the hearings wrapped with a 50-year-old man who earnestly thanked the court for helping him stop drinking, which for him, had evolved into a “sickness.”

“I know I’m doing good,” the man said.