Apilot program in Genesee County, Mich., will defer jail or prison
sentences of certain offenders with mental illness if they plead guilty and
participate in a year-long, court-ordered treatment program.
The program was approved in August by district, circuit, and probate court
judges and entails collaboration among the three courts, Genesee County
Community Mental Health (CMH), the county sheriff's department, and various
local police agencies.
Legislation for a similar statewide diversion program was recently
introduced by state Sen. Liz Brater (D) of Ann Arbor. Brater's concept is
modeled after 76 Michigan drug courts that give nonviolent drug offenders the
chance to get clean without being incarcerated (Psychiatric News,
August 17). But the Genesee County program model is thought by mental health
officials to have a better chance of being passed by the state
The mental health courts were slated to begin September 1, but it will be
months before financial arrangements are worked out. A bill to fund the
program from the budget of the Department of Corrections is now being debated
in the Michigan Senate.
Inmates eligible for diversion will include those diagnosed with
schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder. They must be
capable of understanding the requirements of the program and not present a
danger. Some cases will need approval from the prosecutor, the victim, or
both. All cases involving sexual offenses and homicide will be excluded.
Steven Mays, clinical liaison for CMH, said offenders with mental illness
respond well to the structured setting of a mental health court. As court case
manager, he will cross-check the jail population with Genesee County Community
Mental Health records to identify inmates with a history of mental
Screened inmates will be brought before Genesee Probate Judge Jennie
Barkey, who will conduct the hearings. After arraignment, she will offer the
person a chance to enter treatment as a condition of bond. In a later hearing
the person will be asked to sign an agreement to participate in mental health
court, enter a guilty plea, and consent to a treatment regimen.
Barkey said the program's success will depend on providing structure in the
lives of offenders with mental illness and ensuring they take their
medications. She believes these conditions give them the tools to live
successfully in society.
Earlier Barkey and several other local officials had visited Akron, Ohio,
to study a mental health court that's been operating successfully there for
about five years.
"We are seeing the proliferation of all kinds of specialty
courts," Michigan Psychiatric Society President Jed Magen, D.O., M.S,
told Psychiatric News. "There is an adolescent drug court near
us where we hold training activities for our residents," he added.
Magen is chair of the Department of Psychiatry in the College of Human
Medicine and the College of Osteopathic Medicine at Michigan State
Considering the wide variety of cases most judges see, Magen thinks it
unreasonable to expect them to have the skills and knowledge needed to channel
people into various kinds of diversionary programs.
"Specialty courts are very useful in that regard," he
continued, "but their success is always predicated on having sufficient
resources to achieve their goals. That can be a huge problem."▪