Traverse City Record-Eagle

April 17, 2013

Editorial: Specialty courts way to break cycles

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — The future of the judicial system may not be around the corner, and it may not look just like this.

But in Grand Traverse County, three “specialty” courts — sobriety, veterans and mental health — are helping create new outcomes for people who might otherwise find themselves on the slippery slope toward long-term jail time.

The aim is to address bedrock issues that lead some into regular contact with the courts, such as alcoholism, drug use or mental health problems. Helping them cope with the causes of their behavior isn’t guaranteed to keep them out of jail, but it’s a place to start.

The 86th District Court’s sobriety court, pioneered by Judge Michael Haley, has been around for years now and has had success. The courts, which are voluntary, 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, but at a price.

Going through one of the specialty courts isn’t easy. “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.

Probationers’ often have to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, take drug tests, and undergo counseling. Early on, they must appear each week before the judge. The aim is to keep them focused on the task at hand - staying sober and out of jail.

Risk said for some, the rigors of high expectations can be difficult. “(That is) something a lot of these people may not have grown up with at home,” he said.

Success, particularly in mental health court, can be elusive and can take time.

A statewide Supreme Court study reported about 38 percent of mental health court participants committed a repeat offense after 30 months, compared to 46.7 percent in traditional court. That’s not a huge difference, but it represents dozens of lives getting better.

Judge Michael Stepka, who presides over the mental health court, said the aim is to address underlying problems. Mental health probationers typically suffer from depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or a developmental disability.

Jailing those who knowingly prey on society is an essential part of the judicial system; but keeping people from putting themselves and others at risk because of issues they can’t control is as important.

The courts deserve a lot of credit for giving individuals the chance to break the cycles of alcoholism, trauma or mental health problems that plague them. By comparison, putting people in jail is easy, helping them regain their lives is hard.

But it’s certainly worth it to them and the people who care for them.