Mental health court workers head to school

Training aims to help identify defendants who don’t fit in the regular penal system.
Wednesday, January 21, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:05 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 11, 2008

Since last April, the Boone County Mental Health Court has heard more than a dozen cases involving mentally ill defendants who do not legally qualify as incompetent.

Next week, court personnel will receive their first training from the U.S. Department of Justice. More than 20 teams from mental health courts in 16 states will meet in Cincinnati to discuss what has and has not worked in their individual programs.

Associate Circuit Judge Christine Carpenter, who presides over the Boone County court, said the training will help evaluators more quickly identify defendants who, because of their mental illness, might not fit into the traditional penal system.

Relying on her experience as presiding judge of Boone County’s Drug Court, Carpenter helped start the mental health court last year to provide an alternative to incarceration for criminals with specific problems.

“Not everyone does things for the same reasons or can be treated the same way,” Carpenter told the League of Women Voters gathering Tuesday at First Presbyterian Church in Columbia.

According to Carpenter, establishing the mental health court has been more difficult than setting up the drug court. Treatment programs are determined on an individual, case-by-case basis, she said. And while the drug court may “graduate” offenders in 14 to 15 months, some people who have been in the mental health court system for several months are still in the early phases of treatment.

Still, Carpenter pointed out, it is quicker than the traditional justice system, in which the same offenders would typically be placed on probation for five years. Alternative courts also cost about $30 a day less than the cost of having the same individual incarcerated, she said.

The recidivism rate for those who have completed treatment through the drug court is less than 5 percent, Carpenter said. While the mental health court has yet to produce any graduates, Carpenter said it helps people receive the treatment they need before they end up in the criminal justice system.

“It’s a pervasive problem,” Carpenter said, “and this court is being recognized as a new and highly successful way to deal with (mental illness).”

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