Deborah Weed has seen how people diagnosed with mental illnesses can have their lives thrown into disarray when they end up in the criminal justice system.
As president of Bowling Green’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Weed has offered a space for support group meetings and other services for people with mental illness, but an arrest and a stint in jail can undo their progress.
Weed is seeking support for establishment of a mental health diversion court in Warren County to help defendants with mental illnesses receive treatment.
“We have support coming from a lot of different places, but at this point it’s time to quit talking about how we need it so bad and start moving,” Weed said.
At a meeting last week at The Wellness Connection, a NAMI-operated facility, Weed and stakeholders from several medical, law enforcement and legal agencies discussed how to go about seeking support for a mental health court program similar to ones in Lexington, Louisville, Elizabethtown and northern Kentucky.
Weed envisions a program that would work similarly to state drug courts, with defendants charged with misdemeanors or nonviolent felonies being diverted into a program that focuses on treatment of mental illness rather than jail time.
“The main population that will be benefited is the community because you won’t have folks being released on the street without medication or no place to go,” Weed said. “The folks that we mainly see here are the folks who have serious mental illnesses, and they have a lot of work to do to recover from this and they need a lot of support and a lot more stuff done for them.”
Studies of jail populations consistently show a significant percentage of inmates with mental health conditions, with jails straining to meet the demand for treatment and those inmates being particularly vulnerable to assaults and suicide attempts.
According to a report from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics released last year, 26 percent of jail inmates and 14 percent of people in prison surveyed during 2011-12 had recently experienced serious psychological distress, and larger numbers reported a history of mental health problems.
The Treatment Advocacy Center, a nonprofit organization that researches issues related to lack of access to mental health care, estimated nearly 400,000 inmates in jails and prisons in 2016 had a mental health condition.
“There’s no question that mental health issues are an area where the criminal justice system is not equipped to deal with people in a fair and efficient way,” said James Rhorer, attorney for the Department of Public Advocacy’s Bowling Green trial office. “There are people in prison and jail suffering from mental illness that probably wouldn’t be there if we had enough community resources to deal with mental illness. ... We’re open to anything that can help our clients have more resources to deal effectively with mental illness as opposed to being warehoused in jails and prisons that aren’t equipped to do that.”
Weed talks of Fayette County’s mental health diversion court as a model for what could be put in place in Warren County.
Started in 2014 with volunteers, Fayette County’s program is funded through a grant from the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government and is not under the auspices of the state Administrative Office of Courts.
Jennifer Van Ort-Hazzard, coordinator for the Fayette County mental health court, said the program arose in part following a discussion among several stakeholders about addressing homelessness and the issue of recidivism among those with mental illnesses.
Services are provided based on what participants in the mental health court need, which can entail outpatient therapy and medication, job and volunteer opportunities or inpatient treatment for substance abuse or mental health conditions.
“The intention is for people (in mental health court) to use an integrated approach and develop personal accountability for long-lasting changes in their lives,” Van Ort-Hazzard said. “What at first presents as a legal issue is more about a life and wellness issue as time goes on.”
Weed traveled to Lexington recently to see its mental health court at work, and came away impressed.
To get a similar program started in Bowling Green, she recognizes it will take several community providers and officials in the justice system to buy in, and it will also take funding from a source to be determined.
The brainstorming session last week at The Wellness Connection included a discussion on what information to include supporting a grant application to fund a mental health court.
“A lot of people have known for a good while that it’s a problem that needs to be resolved, but it’s a big responsibility to get it off the ground,” Weed said.