KeepHealthCare.ORG – Mental health court in the works for Ithaca
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ITHACA, N.Y. — Ithaca was recently approved to start a mental health court and local judges and mental health advocates are in the beginning stages of planning it.
Diverting people with mental health issues to treatment instead of the revolving door of jail is better for the person and the community, Ithaca City Court Judge Scott Miller said. Miller has been working with Ithaca City Court Judge Richard Wallace to bring a mental health court to Ithaca. Miller said he often sees the same people over and over again, usually with minor offenses, like disorderly conduct.
“No one benefits when mentally ill people are warehoused in a county jail,” Miller said.
For the past two years, Miller and Wallace have been researching mental health courts and attending meetings and forums to look into whether there is a need for a local court that would divert people with mental health issues to treatment rather than jail.
Ithaca and Tompkins County have several “problem solving” courts already, such as drug treatment court, sex offense court and integrated domestic violence court. Mental health courts have been effective in other communities and have existed since the 1990s, but this will be the first mental health court in the 6th Judicial District of New York.
In 2002, the Brooklyn Mental Health Court began as a demonstration project to address treatment needs of the individual and maintain public safety in the community. To be eligible for the court, defendants had to have a serious and persistent mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar or major depression.
In a 2006 evaluation that looked at 37 people who went through the mental health court, participants showed improvements in homelessness, substance abuse, psychiatric hospitalizations, recidivism and psychosocial functioning.
By diverting people from jail, creating a mental health court could help reduce the jail population — something that has been a local priority.
“The expense for the taxpayers and the overcrowding of the jail for a non-violent mentally ill person, that doesn’t make any sense. The jail is not a hospital,” Miller said. “We can just keep re-sentencing people to 15 days in jail for disorderly conduct but all that happens is they get out, they’re still homeless, they still have a serious mental illness that’s untreated and it’s just a revolving door.”
Miller said when people can instead report regularly to a judge and see a mental health counselor and begin to work on their mental health, they can make progress on other issues like housing and health.
“They’re part of our community and they deserve to be treated with respect,” Miller said.
Recently, there have been improvements in the area of mental health in the Tompkins County Jail. In February, Tompkins County Legislature approved funds for a jail psychiatric physician and a mental health counselor. The county has also added a re-entry coordinator, who is a mental health employee, to help people transition out of jail.
With the additional staff, Capt. Ray Bunce said every inmate has been receiving a mental health evaluation. They have also added more mental health-related programs. Bunce said according to an evaluation last year, as many as 95 percent of inmates were classified as having some mental health concern.
The details have not been worked out yet for a mental health court in Ithaca, but a stakeholder meeting is planned for early July to begin laying out the groundwork. Miller said the court could feasibly be up and running by January 2019.
Part of the planning will be determining who is eligible. Typically mental health courts accept people charged with non-violent misdemeanors and do not accept people charged with felonies, sexual crimes or crimes against children. They will also have to decide what mental illnesses will make someone eligible.