Q&A Tuesday: Mental Health Court aids criminal offenders

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal Carson City Chief Deputy District Attorney Anne Langer was on the committee that helped create a Mental Health Court.

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal Carson City Chief Deputy District Attorney Anne Langer was on the committee that helped create a Mental Health Court.

Carson City Chief Deputy District Attorney Anne Langer, along with district court judges Michael Griffin, William Maddox and Archie Blake, justices of the peace John Tatro and Robey Willis and Public Defender Diane Crow and District Attorney Noel Waters, was part of a committee designed to institute a Mental Health Court program in Carson City. The purpose of the court is to address the underlying issues that cause people with mental health problems to commit crimes.

What is Mental Health Court?

Mental Health Court is a specialty court for criminal offenders with a mental illness such as a bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. There are two separate venues of the court operation. One is for misdemeanors presided over by judges John Tatro and Robey Willis in the Carson City Justice Court. The other is for eligible gross misdemeanor and felony offenders presided over by Judge Archie Blake.

How did it come about?

The idea of a Mental Health Court began with addressing gross misdemeanor and felony offenders. However, after seeing the success of Judge Blake's Drug Court, the justice court judges saw a further need to make Mental Health Court available to misdemeanor offenders.

Sheila Leslie, who coordinates Judge Peter Breen's Mental Health Court in Washoe County, was instrumental in helping us get a Mental Health Court off the ground in Carson City. We have since applied for and received some grant money to assist with the program.

Dr. Joe McElestrom and Sue Ann Bawden, both mental health professionals in Carson City, have also played a key role in our new program. There is a Mental Health Coalition in Carson City comprised of community members who continually work to make services available and accessible to individuals with mental illnesses to keep them out of the criminal justice system in the first place. The Department of Alternative Sentencing also makes a huge contribution to the program by screening and monitoring pre-trial defendants and probationers who may be eligible for or who are involved with the Mental Health Court.

What do you hope to accomplish?

Our goal is to make some positive changes in the area of dealing with mentally ill persons when they become involved in the criminal justice system on lower-level crimes. We believe we can reduce recidivism by addressing the special needs of people with mental health issues. Offenders are held accountable for their criminal activity, but their special mental health needs are addressed as well.

Who is eligible for Mental Health Court?

Persons with a documented mental illness who have committed a misdemeanor offense or a lower-level, nonviolent, gross misdemeanor or felony offense in Carson City.

Can a defendant request his or her case be moved to Mental Health Court, or does a referral have to come from somewhere else?

Referrals to Mental Health Court are made in many ways - through judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, alternative sentencing offers and probation officers, to name a few. However, two criteria must be met before a person is accepted into the program: Team members must determine that the individual is eligible for the program based on the crime that was committed, and an evaluation by a mental health professional must conclude that the person suffers from an eligible mental illness. Finally, the defendant must agree to participate in the program.

What is the difference between Mental Health Court and regular court?

Mental Health Court was modeled after the Drug Court program. They are similar in that after a referral is made and eligibility to participate is established the defendant is assigned to Mental Health Court. Mental Health Court is set up to address the unique needs of individuals suffering from a mental illness and appearances are required on a regular basis. Participants are carefully monitored for compliance based on their individual case.

In a regular court case, the defendant does not appear before the court after sentencing unless he or she has violated a term of their sentence. In Mental Health Court, misdemeanor offenders appear every week and their progress is monitored. Felony and gross misdemeanor offenders appear every other week.

When is court held?

Misdemeanor Mental Health Court is held every Wednesday at 4 p.m., and all participants must appear before the judge at that time every week.

Gross misdemeanor and felony Mental Health Court is held every other Monday at 3 p.m., and all participants must appear before the judge at that time during every Mental Health Court session.

Who else was involved in the creation of the program?

Matt Fisk, court administrator; Sheryl Eilenfeldt, parole and probation; and Kevin Field of alternative sentencing.


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