Government News
Jail-Diversion Program Would Go Statewide if Legislation Succeeds
Psychiatric News
Volume 42 Number 18 page 6-6

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 legislature.

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 illness.

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 University.

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."▪

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