Mental Health Court and your Criminal Case

Mental Health Court and your Criminal Case

by Oct 10, 2014

So, I recently learned that National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is presenting “Of Two Minds”, a film about bipolar disorder. This got me thinking about the mental health resources, or lack thereof, in the criminal justice system.

The fact is, our overly full jails and prisons are a symptom of our failed mental health services, particularly with regards to preventative care. Take for example a recent client of mine. Like many young men, symptoms of his schizophrenia began to present at around the age of 18. He is poor and poorly educated, however, he contacted Sonoma County’s impoverished and understaffed behavioral health services for help.

He was able to get some of the medication he needed…for a while. But then the funding began to dry up. Although he had a job, he was unable to afford the costs of living along with the costs of medication. The medication he needed to take regularly to keep the voices at bay. And then, one night he snapped at his girlfriend and suddenly found himself facing serious charges. Once in jail, he once again resumed medication and, honestly, the difference between my client at the beginning of his case and at the end of the case was dramatic. It left me wondering how different his life going forward could have been if he had access to medication before this incident. How different the lives of everyone involved could have been.

Currently, the only method to assist defendants with mental health disorders in Sonoma County is through the Forensic Assertive Community Treatment (FACT) Team, or “mental health court”. This is an alternative that, if accepted, could result in a powerful tool to reintegrate into society. Admission to FACT requires the following profile:

  • Have a serious mental disorder as identified in the most recent DSM, which is severe in degree and persistent in duration.  Generally, this is schizophrenic, other psychotic disorder, major affective disorder or other severely disabling mental disorder.
  • The disorder is not a cognitive disorder or a developmental disability nor solely a substance abuse disorder.
  • As a result of the mental disorder and functional impairments, the individual is on SSI or SSD or appears to meet the criteria for the same.
  • Priority will be given to individuals with multiple jail bookings.
  • The individual is in custody or on supervised own recognizance (SOR) or own recognizance (OR) at the time of assessment for admission into the program.
  • Individuals arrested and booked for the first time may be accepted into the program but are not priority clients.

Factors that would disqualify a defendant from participating in FACT include:

  • Conviction of an enhancement which would preclude probation and require a state prison sentence.
  • Offenses which require sex offender registration
  • Domestic violence offenses, except those individuals referred by Domestic Violence Court.
  • Homicide or Manslaughter, or attempts to commit the same.
  • Felony DUI.
  • Any crime where life imprisonment may be imposed.
  • Any individual that is charged with a “serious or violent felony”.
  • Those screened by the FACT team, including probation personnel, and deemed to be a public safety risk and a poor candidate for probationary release.

Once accepted, the defendant engages in a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary program, which will include assistance from the clinical staff and regular monitoring from the courts. The team members will identify the client’s needs and help him connect with the appropriate services.

It’s not ideal. Obviously, the best time for this kind of intervention for my client and many others should have been way back when he was asking for help, not after he committed a criminal offense.  However, now that he’s in the system, an attorney is required to make the proper showing to the court and probation to make it happen.