I truly hate this state.
Wichita OKs mental health court
The Wichita Eagle
When people with mental illness are sent to jail time after time for the same petty offenses, it doesn't do much good for them or taxpayers.
That's the guiding principle behind a move to establish the state's first "mental health court" within the Wichita Municipal Court system, officials said.
The new court will bring together city, county and other resources to provide treatment and support — rather than punishment — for people with severe mental problems who get in trouble with the law because of their illness, said Municipal Judge Bryce Abbott.
"I'm excited about it," said Abbott, who has worked for two years to establish the program.
"We'll be getting everybody in the room at the same time, figure out a plan of attack and what's needed and see that it gets provided," he said.
The City Council last week approved an ordinance authorizing the mental health court, which Abbott said is expected to start hearing cases early in October.
The new court will be supported by the City Prosecutor's Office, the Public Defender's Office, the Probation Department, and Sedgwick County Comcare, the county's mental health agency, said Donte Martin, assistant to the municipal court administrator.
The court will act as a diversion program for mentally ill people facing trial, allowing them to avoid a criminal conviction if they accept and fulfill a treatment plan, Martin said.
The program also can be used to obtain treatment and other support for mentally ill people who have been convicted of crimes and are on probation, Martin said.
Most of the people who will be referred to mental health court commit crimes such as trespassing, stealing food or causing a public disturbance, Abbott said.
"This is the guy that's yelling at you at the entrance to QuikTrip," he said.
Sending such people to jail for punishment is counterproductive, he said.
"The first problem is, you need somebody who understands they're being punished," Abbott said. "We continue to incarcerate people who in many cases don't even understand why they're there."
It's also extremely expensive.
Mentally ill inmates tend to stay longer in jail and cost the public more than others, Abbott said.
Once they're incarcerated, they are ineligible for regular programs that pay for their treatment and medication, which the jail then has to provide, he said.
For some people, that can cost as much as $400 to $600 a day, far more than the same service provided in a community setting, Abbott said.
Federal grant to start
Municipal prosecutors welcome the new program, said City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf.
"It's frustrating to prosecute the same people over and over and know there's no way to get help for them," Rebenstorf said. "This is a way to hopefully address it."
Through a $238,000 Justice Department grant, the federal government is picking up most of the cost of the pilot program for its first two years.
The city will provide additional in-kind funding of $102,000, including salaries, equipment costs and training, according to a city report.
Part of the plan will be to collect data on taxpayer savings to be able to justify continuing the program with local funding alone when the federal money runs out, said City Council member Janet Miller.
She said she's been interested in the issue since joining a community task force on homelessness about three years ago.
There, she said, she saw a repeating cycle of mental illness leading to homelessness, leading to police involvement and to court.
Many times, the underlying problem was simply that they weren't taking their medication and made decisions they wouldn't have if their illnesses were under control, she said.
She said her hope for the mental health court is that it will "help folks get out of a cycle that's really difficult for them to get out of."
'Difficult to be smart'
The new program also is being applauded by District Court Judge Phil Journey, who, in his previous office as a state senator, advocated a similar approach in the state courts.
As a lawmaker, he succeeded in getting a bill passed allowing municipal courts to refer potentially mentally ill offenders to the district court to determine their competency to stand trial.
But while programs like mental health court make sense, in the Legislature, "It's easy on criminal justice issues to be mean. It's difficult to be smart," Journey said.
Several other states have mental health courts, but they've usually started at the state Supreme Court and spread down through the court system, Abbott said.
He said he hopes Wichita's program can set an example that will rise through the Kansas judiciary.
"It's not going to be a cure-all," he said. "I know we're going to have some ups and downs.
"But it's better than what we're doing — better than locking them up over and over again."
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