Thursday, August 28, 2008

Presiding Judge Establishes Court to Manage Mental Illness Cases

By Heather Murphy

FLORENCE, AZ – Imagine if a loved one suffered from a serious mental illness and is accused of a crime.  Imagine if you are the victim of a crime committed by someone with a serious mental illness.  In both situations, the ideal outcome is one where justice is served and appropriate care and consideration is paid to both the victim and the accused.  After the Pinal County Mental Health in the Courts Task Force spent many months of planning and coordinating resources, Presiding Superior Court Judge Boyd T. Johnson signed an order establishing the Mental Health Court in Pinal County.


"National research shows that 16 percent of people jailed for criminal offenses also have mental health diagnoses," Judge Johnson said.  "People with mental health conditions are more likely to be arrested.  By default, the criminal justice system becomes the mental health care delivery system or the gateway to that system."


Judge Johnson appointed Judge Janna Vanderpool as Administrative Presiding Judge over the Mental Health Court in Pinal County.


To address a growing problem and awareness of the issues facing the mentally ill in the justice system, the Superior Court in Pinal County formed a Mental Health Task Force in 2005.  Judge Vanderpool is a founding member of the task force.  Other members included representatives from medical and behavioral care providers, County Health and Human Services, the County Attorney, Public Defender, County Jail, Clerk of the Court, Probation and other allied organizations. 


"The task force's goal was collaboration to more swiftly identify the mentally ill, ensure that they are treated with dignity and provide opportunities for treatment," Judge Vanderpool said.  "This protects our neighborhoods and communities, saves money and reduces trauma to both the accused and the victims."


When someone is accused of a crime, the courts have to determine if someone is competent to stand trial and if the person can assist their attorney or public defender in preparing their defense.


"Individuals who do not have the ability to understand what is happening – whether that is due to a disability, mental illness or other mental health issues – must be protected from prosecution in our courts until their ability to understand the proceedings and to assist their attorneys is restored," Judge Johnson said.  "Often, with treatment, medication and education on how the justice system works, we can move forward with a case that might have been dismissed due to competency issues."


"Prior to these recent changes, it could take a year or more of back and forth, just to determine if someone is competent to stand trial or aid in their defense," Judge Vanderpool said.  "Now we can shorten that time by many months."


The process for court-ordered mental health treatment or therapy falls under stringent guidelines laid out in law.  There multiple legal steps and professional evaluations before someone can be court-ordered into treatment or placed into a qualified facility for therapy.  Low-level, non-violent offenders with mental health conditions sometimes can be released for appropriate treatment and supervision.  The courts can also appoint a conservator or guardian, if necessary.


"There are several significant public benefits from more acute attention to, and early assessment of, the mentally ill in our justice system," Judge Vanderpool said.  "Previously, those needing these services were sent to the state hospital and the state's cost for evaluation and restoration to competency was incredibly expensive.  Now, we save taxpayer money by not incarcerating non-violent offenders who have a suitable place to reside.  Additionally, we are now able to provide monitored, out-of-custody and in-jail restoration to competency services."