Mental health court could help criminals with mental illnesses

Several of Fred Connors' neighbors had never heard of the 42-year-old Carson City resident until voices - which Connors said came through cable television wires - started telling him his neighbors were trying to drive him insane.

One neighbor, Don, was sitting home alone one night when he saw a sheriff's officer peering from behind a hedge at his house.

"I was terrified," Don said. "I thought perhaps there had been a robbery. Then he walked to my door and there were fire trucks, ambulances, EMTs, all getting out and running up to my front door.

"I just couldn't figure it out. A cop asked me to step outside and asked me a bunch of questions. He said there had been a suicide attempt at my house.

"I told them, 'I'm the only one here,' but I did allow them to come in and look around. Before they left, they told me they'd been here the day before (on the same type of call,) but no one was here. They wouldn't give me any details, and they wouldn't tell me who had called or why."

Don later found out 911 and emergency services had been dispatched to his street for a variety of other odd occurrences.

Another neighbor, Ivan, had also been the victim of false 911 calls as well as calls from the cable company questioning him on a charge of misusing cable. Ivan and his family don't even have cable; they use a satellite dish.

Sheriff's deputies arrested Connors in March on charges of misuse of 911. Connors was eventually sent to Lakes Crossing, a mental health hospital in Reno for criminal offenders. His case is still pending in Carson's justice court.

While Connors is accused of a crime, Carson City District Attorney Noel Waters speculates that Connors was motivated by paranoid schizophrenia, not criminal intent.

"Fred has profound problems that makes it difficult for the criminal justice system to deal with," said Waters. "A certain number of criminals have a mental health problems. That's a contributing factor to finding themselves in trouble with the law.

"We don't always meet the needs of those people. Unless you address their mental health problems, you're not going to have a great deal of success addressing their social issues. Annoying 911 calls are not something to have happen, but the interest is in taking care of the problems."

Estimates show that 11 percent of people within Nevada's criminal justice system struggle with mental illness. Many get only sporadic or, sometimes, no help outside of the system.

It's a problem that some call the criminalization of the mentally ill.

Members of the Carson City Mental Health Coalition are considering the creation of a mental health court to allow those people a chance to turn their lives around.

Mental health courts are based on the idea of problem solving rather than punishment.

Similar courts in other parts of the country involve a judge working hand-in-hand with community-based mental health providers to make sure those going through the court system receive proper treatment.

"The whole idea of rehabilitation in the penitentiary system is based on hope," Waters said. "There's only so long you can have people under the power of the court. If people get off on the right foot, it improves the chances they'll stay that way. If they get a chance to live a better life, maybe they'll want to continue it."

Carson District Judge Michael Griffin said the justice system usually becomes involved with the mentally ill in two ways: People who are a danger to themselves or others can, with a court order, be taken into custody. Others have actually committed a crime.

Many of the mentally ill in the system are repeat offenders and often have drug problems.

"If you have mentally ill people charged with a crime, it costs a lot of money," Griffin said. "If someone is in the criminal justice system and they are mentally ill, there are questions. Are they mentally fit? Can they help their attorney defend them? Are they sane? Those who are mentally ill can still go to prison for their actions. The jails can't handle these people.

"For those with mental health problems who commit the garden variety crimes, we want to establish a court so that when someone comes in, they don't go to jail; they get the help that is required.

"It's the right thing to do. You don't want those with mental illnesses to commit crimes they can go to prison for. It's an inefficient way to treat a mental problem. Many of these cases are repetitive, and they will be unless we can break that cycle. If we can stop the cycle, have them monitored, we can restore a lot of these people."

Carson City Chief Deputy Jerry Mather said deputies may spend up to 10 hours and hundreds of dollars to get a mentally ill person evaluated and sent to the appropriate facility. That typically is the Nevada Mental Health Institute in Sparks or, for those charged with crimes, Lakes Crossing.

Mather said when people end up in jail, the continuity of their care - if there is any - is shattered. In jail, the mentally ill generally receive medication but not the counseling they may get outside.

The pattern often reverses when someone is out of jail; they get treatment but often can't afford the expensive medicines needed to keep them stable.

"If they're in the criminal justice system, the crimes tend to overshadow the mental health problems," Mather said. "We have a lot of people who rotate in and out on a regular basis.

"The goal of the social service agencies is to keep them out of jail. If there are some preventive measures to keep them out of jail, we obviously support that. We don't want these people back. If it's a mental health issue, they don't belong in jail."

The key to making a mental health court work is case managers who can keep track of a client as he moves among mental-health agencies and the courts.

Griffin said regional district courts have been working on the formation of a drug court, which has similar aspects as the mental health court - rehabilitation in lieu of punishment.

Waters said much of the work done to advance the drug court could be applied to the mental health court, and perhaps the court could double as a court for both drugs and mental health.

"It's going to be a lot of work. It's pretty daunting to work between county lines and judicial lines," Griffin said.

Mental health courts in places like Seattle, Wash., and Anchorage, Alaska, are voluntary.

"The court no doubt has to be voluntary, but no doubt viewed by some as coercive," Waters said. "We would be using the coercive power of the court. Some people would prefer not to go to a class, but they'd rather do that than to do the bucket.

"You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make them drink. But maybe sometimes you can make them thirsty."

Waters said he sees the mental health court at least a year from implementation, if not more. Much depends on funding the Mental Health Coalition plans to request from the Legislature.

Perhaps with a mental health court, Waters would have known exactly what Connors had been up to since Waters last dealt with the case in September.

"With Fred it seems that a mental health court would have made a little closer tie between Carson Mental Health and the court," Waters said. "There would be more information available, a more intense level of supervision. It's one of those cases where if he did stabilize, he wouldn't be a problem. Looking at it from a bit more selfish position, if Fred can be helped by being stabilized where he doesn't get into trouble, my office benefits. We don't see him involved in something similar. Socially, we are better off."

Editor's note: This is the second in a series of articles examining mental-health issues in Nevada and, specifically, attempts in Carson City to improve the level of treatment for the mentally ill.


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