ST. GEORGE – Typically, defendants are brought into the courtroom and arraigned, tried, and either acquitted or sentenced. It’s nothing new or overly spectacular in the world of the judicial system. However, a new type of court has been put into play at the Fifth District Court of Utah for certain individuals for whom the traditional brands of justice may hinder more than aid.
It is mental health court.
“It’s a fairly new program nationwide,” Carl Mangum, a case manager with the Southwest Behavioral Health Center said. This is especially true for Southern Utah, as the new court started in January of this year.
That being said, what exactly is mental health court?
“It’s like drug court,” Mangum explained, “but for people with mental illness.”
Similar to drug court, the new mental health court addresses the underlying problems that contribute to the crimes committed by those with mental illness. While the fact that the perpetrators have mental issues does not excuse the crime, the court seeks to find a preferable mode of rehabilitative treatment rather than incarceration.
Lynn Bjorkman, the president of the southwestern Utah chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), explained that a coalition of people and agencies come together in order to determine the best possible way to help the defendant. This group includes the judge, the defense attorney, prosecuting attorney, police, and representatives of NAMI and the Southwest Behavioral Health Center. Candidates for the court are brought before the coalition by the defense attorney.
“This is for people with severe mental illness,” Mangum said, adding such conditions as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia as examples.
However, violent crimes, such as rape and murder, are left to the realm of criminal justice and are not touched by the mental health court.
“The idea is to get help and treatment,” Mangum said.
Both Mangum and Bjorkman pointed out that the mentally ill who find themselves subjects of the justice system can be treated to a revolving door of ineffectuality. They are picked up by the police, brought before the judge, sentenced, serve their time and pay their fines, and get released, only to have the cycle repeat time and time again.
The mental health court puts a wedge in that revolving door and helps the individual out of the cycle of perpetual courtroom appearances.
“The recidivism rate is really quite low,” Bjorkman said. He also mentioned that the lower rate of recidivism helps save the taxpayers’ money in the long run as fewer funds are spent for time in courts and bodies in prison.
The mental health court presided over by the Fifth District Court is patterned after the mental health court system in Salt Lake City.
Mangum said that the system in Salt lack City has been around for 10 years and has had a high level of success. The system organized in St. George is a two-year treatment program, and thus has yet to produce any successful graduates. Mangum is very optimistic, however, as the local mental health court has had great success in keeping participants engaged and involved.
Currently, the mental health court is held on a Monday at 4 p.m., once every two weeks, at the Fifth District Courthouse in St. George. The presiding judge is John Walton.
For more information on the mental health court system in Utah, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness Utah website: http://www.namiut.org/ or the Southwest Behavioral Health Center at: http://www.swbehavioralhealth.com/.
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