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Currie pushes for mental health courts — Brookhaven lawmaker wants to model on successful drug court system

A Brookhaven lawmaker wants to create a new statewide court system that would offer defendants with mental illnesses a path toward healing, not toward prison.

Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, on Wednesday amended a sure-to-pass Senate bill to require the creation of a mental health court that would follow the model of Mississippi’s successful drug court, giving defendants with mental illnesses a chance to complete court-appointed treatment and supervision processes that would waive criminal charges and punishment. Currie said the court is designed to provide ongoing mental healthcare and reduce the number of mental health patients sentenced to prison for crimes they often cannot help but commit.

“This is a way to keep people out of jail who just need to be back on their medication,” she said. “You put them in a program where they come in every two weeks and see the judge — did they go to the doctor? Are they taking their medicine? Did they attend their therapy appointments? If you do all the right things, you don’t go to jail.”

The order to create the court system lies in an amendment to Senate Bill 2197, a bill that would provide immunity to people who assist in medical emergencies due to alcohol consumption. The bill passed the Senate unanimously on Feb. 1 and passed the House with Currie’s amendment Wednesday.

Currie claims the creation of a statewide mental health court would be modeled almost identically on the existing drug courts and would cost around $3 million to implement. She said the cost is “absolutely nothing” compared to the long-term savings she expects the state will enjoy by keeping mental health patients out of correctional facilities, where the state becomes responsible for providing healthcare.

“We give the patient the care they need, and we keep them out of prison,” she said. “It’s good for the public, good for the taxpayer and good for the mentally ill and their families.”

Currie mentioned accused school shooter Nikolas Cruz, who Wednesday was indicted on 34 counts of premeditated and attempted murder in the deaths of 17 students and faculty at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

“Law enforcement was called to his house 30-something times. They have mental health courts there — why in the world was he not in that system?” she said. “When families continue to call in and say, ‘Uncle Joe has to be committed, he’s off his medicine…’ we’ve got to have that place for them to be.”

Lincoln County Circuit Judge Michael Taylor said many repeat offenders in all levels of criminal court — municipal, justice and circuit — suffer from mental illness, adding that mental health courts across the country are an effective solution for community-based treatment and monitoring.

Taylor, a member of the State Drug Court Advisory Board, said drug courts and mental health courts are part of a larger trend in the justice system called “problem-solving courts.”

“The court exercises continuing jurisdiction over a person to deal with a problem, rather than a single offense,” he said. “There are a lot of good ideas the state hasn’t been able to fund, and I’m glad this is one we’re talking about and working on.”

Dave Van, executive director of Region 8 Mental Health, said the proposal would also create leverage to ensure mental health patients comply with treatment plans. Not all patients have family members and support groups to see them through the process, he said.

“I think it creates an additional level of accountability for those individuals, and it also provides an additional option for judges who have to make decisions on the well being of individuals as well as communities,” Van said. “Jail is certainly not ever an option, and the goal is keep those individuals in their communities, instead of in an institution.”

Region 8, which operates community-based mental health services in Lincoln and several other counties, would probably see its facilities and services become treatment options in the arsenals of judges presiding over mental health courts, Van said.

“It just kind of makes sense to have a mental health court,” he said. “No one can argue the more info you have, the more programs you have, the more accountability to you have in any community, the better off individuals are going to be.”

As for Currie’s amendment, it is the complete text of House Bill 419, a bill she authored earlier in the 2018 session that passed the House 116-1 then died in committee in the Senate. She said this marks the third year she’s tried to pass mental health court legislation.

Her reason for using SB 2197 as a vehicle for her amendment is simple.

“It was available,” she said.