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Mental Health Court set to begin work here in January

STORY BY MEG LAUGHLIN (Week of November 27, 2014)

With $100,000 in funding just approved by the county commission, Mental Health Court is set to begin in Indian River County in January.

The nine-month pilot program here will start small with about a half dozen people.

But if it’s anything like the program in St. Lucie County, it’ll quickly grow to become a huge money-saving success, which will turn hundreds of defendants into productive citizens.

The St. Lucie County program, which started in 2006 with six defendants, now has over 1,000 defendants-turned-clients, with an impressively low recidivism rate of only 8 percent.

Midday on Monday, dozens of “clients” lined up in the St. Lucie County courtroom of Judge Cynthia Cox, who will also preside over the new Mental Health Court in Indian River County.

They ranged in age from 18 to 70.

They had been arrested for everything from trespassing to battery to cocaine possession. Some looked as if they had slept in their clothes for a few days.

Others wore neatly pressed suits and ties. One young woman had hair as red as her lipstick. One young man covered his eyes with his hands, afraid to look at the judge.

Some of the participants thanked the judge and praised the program. A few complained.

But what they all had in common was some form of mental illness that contributed to their breaking the law and getting arrested.

Were it not for Mental Health Court, which focuses on stabilizing them and helping them function, many of them would be repeat offenders, destined to spending most of their lives in prison.

As they approached the bench one by one, Cox greeted them by name. In front of her was a printout on each person.

It told what their mental illness was, what they were arrested for and how they were doing in the court’s mental health program.

The program keeps close tabs on them through case managers, social workers, ministers, therapists, public defender liaisons and regular meetings with the judge.

“I see you have an AA sponsor. Good for you,” Cox told a young man named Paul.

“I’m allergic to Risperdal and need a meds change,” a young man named James told Cox.

The judge immediately sent him to a case manager in the courtroom to get his antipsychotic medicine changed.

“Why did you miss your last appointment with your therapist?” Cox  asked a middle-aged man named Lewis, who said he didn’t have transportation.

She sent him to a liaison in the courtroom from the public defender’s office who gave him a bus pass.

The printout on Jason, a red-faced guy in his 40s, showed he tested positive for illegal drugs a few days before.

On the spot, Cox told the bailiff to handcuff him and take him to jail.

“We’ll get you into a residential substance abuse program in the next week,” she said.

“I’m relieved to be doing this,” he told her.

Over two hours, the judge talked to about 50 people, all in different stages in the Mental Health Court program, which oversees doctor and therapy appointments, medications, drug tests, community service hours and employment until they’re able to graduate from the program and live on their own, crime-free.

During their time in Mental Health Court, which ranges from six months to several years, participants cannot break the law, must attend all appointments, take their medications, attend group therapy, have clean drug screens, complete community service hours and pay all fees in order to be eligible for graduation. 

When participants meet all requirements, their names are then sent to the state attorney’s office for final approval to “graduate” from the program.

St. Lucie County Mental Health Court numbers show that two years prior to getting into the program, mentally ill offenders spent 18,159 days in jail at a cost to the county of about $125 a day.

Two years after participating in the program, the same offenders-turned-clients spent just 2,603 days in jail.  This amounts to a savings of $1.9 million for taxpayers.  

When Judge Cox and Sheriff Deryl Loar applied to the Indian River County Commission for the money to get the Indian River County pilot program started, they had to summarize the purpose of the funds.

They wrote: “For public safety; to enhance the lives of those suffering from mental illness; to connect the mentally ill with community services; to divert inmates from jail to the community and to lower recidivism rates for mentally ill criminals.”

The $100,000 approved by the Indian River County commission last week will be used as follows: $39,000 for a case manager’s salary for 9 months, $56,000 for meds, therapy, drug testing and other client-related needs, and $5,000 for an office and technical support.