Mental Health Courts Dispense Treatment Instead of Jail Time

By Samantha Rosen

Brought to Montgomery County in January, the Mental Health Courts expect to have their first group of successful participants graduate in 2017.

The county organized the Mental Health Courts in effort to combat the increase of mental health patient low-level offense arrests. The program works with the patients for 12 to 18 months, getting them to take their medications and receive help, with the goal of making them productive community members, rather than criminals with an extensive record.

Although the program has only been running for four months, and there is no statistical breakdown of results yet, those who work closely with the Mental Health Court system have already witnessed various success stories and see positive change taking place in the criminal justice system.

Kathy Knight, the chief of the District Court division for the State Attorney’s office, saw success immediately in the court’s first enrollee. Police arrested a 70-year-old man, with no prior offenses, four times in a brief period. The Mental Health Court began working with him and realized he needed a medication change.

“This man feels extremely proud and special to have been the first enrollee,” Knight said. “He is now out in the community doing great and comes back to us talking to us about how much he loves the program.”

Currently, the District Mental Health Court has over 30 participants and the Circuit Mental Health Court has eight participants. Within the next month, the number of participants will increase to over 50, according to Phil Andrews, director of crime prevention initiatives for the State’s Attorney office and former Montgomery County councilmember.

As the program nears capacity, funding for both courts needs to increase. The program needs to hire more therapists and social workers, as well as create a position in the State’s Attorney office to deal with the increasing number of participants in the program.

“It is not fair to participants to overextend our therapists,” Vlatka Tomazic, the prosecutor who handles all the Circuit Court cases, said. “We need more resources so that we can reach out to as may people as we can. One therapist can only do so much.”

To ensure that the courts continue to receive necessary funding, the Mental Health Courts will start working with the Office of Problem-Solving Courts, which is responsible for the development, maintenance and advancement of the Maryland court system.

When the program reaches its one-year mark, those who work with the courts hope to see the majority of current participants in the first graduating class, Andrews said. This means that participants will have complied with the requirements of the court, including, but not limited to, staying drug free, finding a job and attending mandatory meetings.

“This program benefits the participants and the public,” Andrews said. “In the end, the participant gets their life back, becomes independent, and becomes a productive member of the community. The public sees a major reduction in crime and a more efficient use of the criminal justice system.”

Since the program began, the number of people incarcerated for “petty crimes” has gone down, according to Montgomery County Councilmember Sidney Katz, member of the task force that brought the Mental Health Courts to the county. Petty crimes, such as shoplifting and vandalism, frequently resulted in the arrest of the same people multiple times in one week.

There have only been two charges against individuals in the program since the program started. The success of the Mental Health Courts, Knight said, results from the program’s team of people that work with each participant.

“Not only do we have judges who engage and encourage our patients but is also harsh when they need to be harsh, but we also have therapists, social workers, and programs in the community that help the people who are here to be helped and to succeed,” Knight said.

Noelle Gunzburg, the supervisory therapist for the Mental Health Courts, recently shared an elevator ride with a client who expressed how thankful she was that the Mental Health Court has kept her son from receiving any new charges. The mother said that her son is now in treatment, following the rules, and improving and growing as a person.

Despite the success stories, the Mental Health Courts come with opposition. Many police officers express their frustration with the system when they believe that certain offenders need to spend their due time in jail, Gunzburg and Knight said.

“The police have a say in the decision of whether or not to recommend someone for the Mental Health Court,” Scott Davis, coordinator for the Crisis Intervention Team and Montgomery County police officer, said. “So based on this, if the consumer fails the program or is re-arrested then I totally understand the frustration issue.”

Genevieve Diamond-Krebs, a mobile treatment therapist for Cornerstone Montgomery, a nonprofit organization that works with mental health patients, currently has one client going through the Mental Health Court and is in the process of referring two others.

Diamond-Krebs said that her client is thankful the Mental Health Court has kept him from finding himself in jail again. She hopes that the Mental Health Court will help her client settle into a weekly structured routine and no longer have as many episodes of negative behaviors that originally put her client in jail.

“This program is working really well,” Knight said. “Not only have we not had many re-offenses in general, but with every individual we see success. We had one person who used to be picked up by the police at least once a month, and now he has not been since January.”

Rockville View is pleased to publish this article by Samantha Rosen: “I am a Journalism and Government and Politics double major at the University of Maryland. I grew up in Miami, Florida where I wrote for a monthly column for a local magazine and was Editor-in-chief of my high school newspaper, beginning my journalism career. At school, I write for a variety of different publications, including Unwind and The Mitzpeh. Last summer, I interned for Ocean Drive Magazine. I’m exited to see where my journalism path takes me.”

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