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New court to assist mentally ill offenders

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From his position on the bench, 3rd District Judge William Bohling has seen many mentally ill people go through the "revolving door" of not taking their medication, committing a crime, going to jail, getting out and doing the same thing all over again.

He's also seen distraught parents, siblings and children of mentally ill people struggling to get help for their relatives.

At home, it hits even harder. Bohling's son, Peter, ran into legal troubles as a child, but everything crashed when Peter was diagnosed as schizophrenic.

Only days before his 20th birthday, Peter hanged himself. Bohling describes it as "the worst day of my life."

Now Bohling wants to give some hope and help to other families through a pilot Mental Health Court that just began this month. It is modeled after the highly successful Drug Court.

Bohling is quick to note that he alone is not responsible for creating the new court. Many community activists, mental-health experts and people in law enforcement and the courts came together about the same time with the idea of creating this court.

"It was serendipity," Bohling said. "All these people, coming from very different perspectives, saying, 'This is something we have an outcry for.' "

Other mental-health courts throughout the country have been successful in varying degrees, depending on the level of funding and community services to treat offenders.

The Utah pilot court will run through June 2002 and will handle a caseload of only 25 people. A "planning team" will choose the people who can go through this court, and they must be nonviolent psychotic individuals who have committed a misdemeanor. At first, only people who are bipolar (manic-depressive) or have schizophrenia will be able to participate.

The individuals will be stabilized with medical help, most likely while in jail, and once competent, will be offered the choice of either working through this court or going through the regular criminal justice system.

The mental-health court will set goals for the person and, using a network of community resources, will provide intensive supervision, medication, possibly counseling and support. The individuals also will get help applying for Medicaid to pay for medicine, which can run as much as $500 to $1,000 per month.

Most misdemeanors can carry a yearlong probation period. "If somebody is stable for a year, they've learned what it is like to live a normal life and my guess is they would want to stay with it," Bohling said.

So far, defense attorneys have been supportive, Bohling said, and the committee that organized the court spent considerable time making sure that all necessary consent papers and confidentiality matters would be addressed so no one would be railroaded into this court or into treatment.

Critics might ask: Why another court?

The quick answer is that the regular court system doesn't work for the mentally ill. They're in, they're out, they spend time in jail, then commit new crimes and nothing changes.

"We're not being soft on crime," said Sim Gill, chief prosecutor for Salt Lake City, who had the same idea as Bohling and teamed up early to launch the new court. "We're being effective with crime, recognizing the basis for criminal conduct in some of the population.

"If we do not address it, our taxpayer dollars will be spent over and over again and our police will respond over and over again, and there will be no result," Gill said.

What people need to recognize is that many major mental illnesses are organic brain diseases that often respond to treatment. But without help — and often without medication — the individual cannot do it alone.

This is where a mental-health court can provide innovative and compassionate remedies, Gill said.

"If a person is sick, any help they receive is not a bad thing. Even in the worst-case scenario, if all we can accomplish is to stabilize a person for 12 months, to me it it is a win for two reasons: For 12 months, there was a better quality of life for this person and for 12 months they didn't commit any new offenses, a win for the community."

If they stay well and law-abiding even longer, everyone wins again.

Gill also emphasized that the court is a collaborative effort involving many mental-health, law enforcement and court-related agencies. "Individually, this whole challenge is overwhelming, but collectively it is something we can exert some effort against."

The first person to go through the system in early July already has agreed to accept treatment, Gill said. "To me, that's an important message."

E-mail: lindat@desnews.com