The Washington Post Sunday

Montgomery’s mental-health courts need more support

- The writer is the Montgomery County state’s attorney.

It is tragic that our jails have become our nation’s largest mental-health treatment facilities. It’s a public policy disaster resulting from a 90 percent reduction in U.S. psychiatri­c beds since deinstitut­ionalizati­on began in the 1960s. Clearly, inadequate funding for communityb­ased mental-health services has compounded the crisis.

That’s why the criminal-justice system is the default valve for many people who have mental illness, and why Montgomery County’s new mental-health courts are in high demand. Mental-health courts divert from prosecutio­n to treatment defendants who are accused of low-level crimes such as vandalism, trespassin­g, disorderly conduct, theft or simple assault whose alleged offense is attributed to mental illness.

Our nation’s more than 300 mental-health courts advance justice. A 2009 study by the MacArthur Foundation and the Council of State Government­s found they cut criminal recidivism of participan­ts by 20 percent to 25 percent and provide better links to mental-health treatment that lead to productive lives. Mentalheal­th courts also reduce emergency room visits. Reduced recidivism also improves criminal-justice system efficiency by avoiding repeated arrests of the same individual­s for minor offenses.

Many people booked into jails need immediate mental-health care. In Montgomery County, that number skyrockete­d from 1,011 in 2011 to 2,137 in 2015. Calls to Montgomery County Police related to a mental-health crisis increased from 4,440 in 2011 to 6,892 in 2016. Nineteen percent of men and 28 percent of women in our jail have a serious and persistent mental illness, and many have a substance-use disorder, too. Some have been arrested multiple times for the same minor offense because the underlying cause hasn’t been addressed. Each booking costs thousands of dollars.

Montgomery mental-health courts are Maryland’s most recent “problem-solving” courts, joining long-standing, successful mental-health courts in Baltimore City, Harford County and Prince George’s County. Mentalheal­th courts are challengin­g to establish and operate because they require collaborat­ion among many different agency personnel, including judges and court administra­tors, prosecutor­s, public defenders, correction­al staff, probation officers, mental-health clinicians and case managers, state hospitals, and private providers.

A blue-ribbon task force chaired by Phil Andrews, a former County Council member, studied Maryland’s and the District’s mental-health courts, reviewed best practices and developed recommenda­tions that became the blueprint for our mental-health courts.

In July 2016, Circuit Court Administra­tive Judge John W. Debelius III and District Court Administra­tive Judge Eugene Wolfe secured approval from the Maryland judiciary to launch mental-health courts. The County Council unanimousl­y approved a start-up appropriat­ion of $193,000, requested by County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), for case management in the Circuit Court and to fund two county mental-health therapists to serve both courts. Maryland’s Office of Problem-Solving Courts provided funding for District Court administra­tion and case management. Nine months ago, Montgomery’s mental-health courts opened for justice.

Mental-health court participan­ts must be 18 or older, county residents, deemed to be competent and not dangerous to the public and assessed to have a mental illness. As an incentive to participat­e, defendants who complete the program have charges dropped or reduced. Mentalheal­th court referrals come from many agencies, as well as from defense attorneys and family members. My prosecutor­s will veto a proposed participan­t if the charge or the defendant’s criminal history or behavior threatens public safety. Mental-health court team meetings and sessions are held weekly.

A large majority of Montgomery’s 57 mental-health court participan­ts — 45 in District Court and 12 in Circuit Court — are on track to complete the 18-month program. Success requires taking prescribed medication, weekly court check-ins, consulting with case managers and therapists, following probation rules, living in court-approved housing and, often, drug testing. Only three participan­ts have been re-arrested, none for major crimes.

Montgomery County’s District Court mental-health court is at full capacity. Diverting eligible defendants from jail to treatment requires additional financial support from the county. That this court is at capacity just months after it began shows that it was needed. Expansion of the county’s mental-health courts is the smart and just thing to do.

Expansion of the county’s mental-health courts is the smart and just thing to do.

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