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Courts deal with special needs of mentally ill who break the law

For Judge John Nelson of Yuma County Superior Court, there weren’t many options in his county for dealing with mentally ill criminal defendants who violated probation.

He and his fellow judges often were limited to just sending them to prison.

In the past month, however, the court joined the ranks of about 10 others around the state in creating a mental health court to tend to the special needs of the seriously mentally ill who break the law.

The courts have existed in the state since 2002, and are embraced by tough-on-crime prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation officers, mental-health providers and a group that seeks alternatives to prison for low-level, non-violent crimes.

And with the proliferation of these courts, Gov. Jan Brewer has signed HB2310, a measure mandating the Administrative Office of the Courts to evaluate the courts statewide and develop standards for them. The bill’s enactment is conditioned on whether there is an appropriation to fund the study.

“Taxpayers should get the best deal possible rather than just punishment because punishment isn’t the priority of mental health court — it’s stabilization and making them productive and keeping them out of the system,” Nelson said.

In a recent survey of 600 likely voters statewide, 84 percent of respondents strongly supported or somewhat supported mental health courts as an alternative to prison.

The survey, conducted by GlobaLocal Visions LLC and commissioned by the American Friends Service Committee, had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points. The American Friends Service Committee, the social arm of the Quaker religion, has supported alternatives to prison for years, usually with little success.

According to lobbyist Barry Aarons, the group conceived the idea of HB2310, and after meeting with various legislators and Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery convinced Rep. Eddie Farnsworth to introduce it as a strike-all amendment.

“It helps to prevent the recidivism, especially when returning to prison might be the result of a mental disability,” Aarons said.

Aarons said he is hopeful the Legislature will provide a supplemental appropriation of about $90,000 to the Administrative Office of the Courts to conduct the study.

Mental health courts can work as a diversion program or a probation program. Municipal courts typically opt for the diversion program, while Superior courts use them as a probation program in which a team consisting of the prosecutor, a defense attorney, the local mental- health provider, a probation officer and a judge work together to keep the offender in line.

The offender has to check in regularly to report his or her progress to the judge, who can use his authority to provide a carrot or stick, depending on what is needed.

“You’re focused on trying to solve the problem, not just the case,” said Louraine Arkfeld, a retired Tempe municipal judge who presided over the first mental health court in Arizona. “You can resolve that case, but if you don’t deal with the underlying problem, inevitably you’re probably going to be dealing with another case somewhere along the line.”

Arkfeld, who retired from the bench three years ago, said Tempe started its court in 2002 because there was a population of mentally ill defendants in a revolving door of low-level crimes.

Nelson said the judge and offender tend to develop a relationship, which can serve as powerful encouragement to succeed.

“He doesn’t want to disappoint the judge or him or herself, so that’s why a judge is such an integral part of these specialty courts,” Nelson said.

The Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys’ Advisory Council thinks that Arizona’s sentencing laws shouldn’t be softened. The council relies on a 2010 study it commissioned, “Prisoners in Arizona: Truth-in- Sentencing, Time Served and Recidivism,” and a 2012 follow-up study that concludes most of the people in prison are violent, repeat offenders, not low-level, non-violent offenders.

“We think that under the circumstances that we have, the right people are going to prison for the right reasons,” said APAAC staff attorney Kim MacEachern.

But MacEachern said APAAC is supportive of alternatives to prison for the right people.

“You’ve got to get the people in the programs that are going to benefit from them and have the background that is amenable to that type of behavior modification,” MacEachern said.

Nelson said it was a deputy Yuma County attorney who came to him to suggest creating a mental health court.

And Montgomery, the top lawman in the state’s largest county, also embraces the courts.

“A positive I have asserted since becoming county attorney is that the criminal justice system has become the default provider of mental health services and that is not acceptable,” Montgomery said. “At the same time, I have had parents of people who participate in the mental health court process state that being accountable before a judge for maintaining a treatment regimen and-or schedule of medication is what’s necessary for their child to follow through.”

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