Mental Health Court
Seeing her son handcuffed and in a jailhouse jumpsuit wasn't a new experience for Billie Jo Heath.
From the September, 2017 issue
The difference was that in February, he appeared in the Washtenaw County mental health court, a three-year-old offshoot of the Fifteenth District Court designed to help rather than punish people with severe and persistent mental illness. Thirty-year-old "Jeremy"-not his real name-has a schizoaffective disorder and an addiction to what his mother calls the "devil drug," crack cocaine.
Heath says that as a child her son was "laid back, funny, and liked to make jokes." But in his late teens, she saw cigarette burns on his arms and other signs he was harming himself. After being hospitalized in Chelsea, he faithfully took his medications, and was eventually able to live alone at Baker Commons. "I had my son back for a few years. He'd call me every day and would help me around the house and help me with yard work-until he stopped taking his medications," Heath says.
Jeremy ended up homeless, living alternately outdoors and at the Delonis Center. He began doing street drugs and committing nonviolent crimes: "theft, trespassing, larceny, loitering-the same old stuff," says Heath. She would cover his bond and fines, drive around looking for him, and bribe him with cigarettes to meet her twice a week so she could be sure he was alive and get him something to eat.
But the last time she saw him, at his arraignment for a larceny charge, he "looked like a walking skeleton." Fearing he might die on the street, for the first time she refused to post his bond.
Jeremy's illness and addiction brought him to the mental health court. Like more than two dozen others around the state, it gives defendants a choice between jail and judicially supervised, community-based treatment. Judge Karen Quinlan Valvo, who presides over the court, emails that they're charged with misdemeanors that include being "publicly drunk and disorderly, chronic trespassing, assault and battery, retail fraud, malicious destruction of property, drug and alcohol offenses, money crimes."
Valvo, court coordinator Stacey
Fleszar, and probation officer Patrick Chase work with prosecuting and defense attorneys, representatives from the county's community mental health program, and liaisons from Home of New Vision and Dawn Farm treatment centers. Volunteers from NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, are available to support participants and their family members. An Avalon caseworker helps with life skills and housing issues, and an Ann Arbor Police Department community engagement officer rounds out the team.
The goal, Valvo writes, is "for each participant to graduate from the specialty court having successfully completed probation, received treatment for his or her illness, equipped with life skills and a support network to sustain their recovery, with an improved quality of life, in stable housing. The hope is they will not find themselves in the criminal justice system again."
Participation is voluntary; those who decline remain in the general court system. For those who accept, Chase does a preliminary assessment to make sure that their diagnosis, and the crimes they're charged with, meet the court's requirements. Then he'll discuss the terms and conditions of their community-based supervision, and the court's staff and mental health professionals will work in tandem to develop treatment plans and provide supervision.
The day Jeremy and his mother were in the court, judge Elizabeth Pollard Hines was substituting for Judge Valvo. An elderly musician who had secured a regular gig was lauded. A young woman who was staying sober received a graduation certificate and a stone with an inspirational message.
Heath watched with laser-like focus as Jeremy was brought in. If he met all the conditions of the court for twelve months, his sentence-365 days in jail, with credit for thirty days served-would be waived.
Contacted later, Heath reported that Jeremy complied for only one week: "I went and picked him up and we went and did the drug test. We made the appointment with Mr. Chase-he's awesome! Then, he had to go to Dawn Farm and get an assessment … and then-poof-he disappeared." A short time later, he broke into her house.
Jeremy eventually resurfaced, but after missing two court dates, he was terminated from the mental health court. He is now serving the rest of his sentence in jail. But Heath appreciates the court's compassion and understanding. People with mental illness and addictions are "not bad people," she says emphatically. "I like this court because they give them lots of breaks and chances and help them."
As of April, Valvo writes, the courts had enrolled 117 participants, "which includes 37 who are currently active in the court. We have 3 or 4 new applicants pending. One of our currently active 37 is graduating during our next docket, which will make 38 successful graduates over the years, 36 active and 43 participants who left it before completing the program. We are right around a 47% success rate."
She adds that those successes save the county money: "The data show it is less expensive to work with persons on the underlying causes of their criminal behavior than it is to incarcerate them for 30-365 days."
[Originally published in September, 2017.]
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