Glendale mental health court aims to send defendants to treatment, not prison

February 21, 2013

Last month, the city of Glendale opened a new court specially designed for the mentally ill. Advocates say it’s a critical issue; according to an analysis of government data by the Treatment Advocacy Center, mentally ill people in Arizona are nearly ten times more likely to be in the criminal justice system than in hospitals. 

The whole idea behind Glendale’s Mental Health Court is to keep defendants stable and out of prison. Mentally ill people whose treatment’s been handled by the state behavioral health agency get routed in when they’re charged with a crime. They can get a psychiatric evaluation at the court, which saves time and money. And the case is handled by a team that doesn’t change from case to case.

Judge Elizabeth Finn Judge Elizabeth Finn presides over Glendale's Mental Health Court. (Photo by Nick Blumberg - KJZZ)

Elizabeth Finn is the presiding judge for Glendale City Court. She said that’s true of good specialty courts nationwide. “It doesn’t matter whether it was a drug court, if it’s a domestic violence court, if it’s a mental health court," Finn said. "It’s made up of the same individuals: a prosecutor, a public defender, a judge, and then somebody who is a specialist in the area.”

Finn said the mental health court team she’s a part of is non-adversarial -- it’s more interested in the benefit to defendants and the community.

While the mental health division is similar to other specialty courts in Glendale, there are some important considerations. For example, if someone fails to attend a counseling session as required by the domestic violence court, they’ll likely get community service. But Finn said that wouldn’t really be a benefit to a mentally ill defendant: “or to the organization for whom they’re performing community service. Our main goal here is to get them stable. We know there are going to be relapses, we also know they’re going to probably be with us for a year.”

But the court is willing to accept that. Even though the team knows it may be dealing with a defendant for a longer stretch of time, it thinks this model will reduce recidivism rates -- a huge problem with mentally ill defendants. A 2006 Department of Justice study found nearly half of state prison inmates with a mental illness had three or more prior sentences.

Shelley Curran is the Director of Court Advocacy for Magellan Health Services, which runs Arizona’s behavioral health system. She said the mentally ill can fall through the cracks in a traditional court, "where somebody can have charges and, you know, within a couple of months...they’ve either served their time in jail or they’ve paid their fine and they move on their way, and then four or five months later they’re back in the same situation. We haven’t had a chance to really change what was happening with that person.”

Shelley Curran Shelley Curran is Director of Court Advocacy for the company that manages Arizona's behavioral health program. (Photo by Nick Blumberg - KJZZ)

But the mental health court gives defendants a treatment plan and keeps them accountable. Curran said any disease is difficult to manage alone.

“Everybody needs support," Curran said. "I mean, how many of us have been prescribed antibiotics for ten days and we miss a dose, or we forget to take yesterday’s, or we realize two days have gone by and we haven’t taken our medications?”

It’s not just the courts that can sometimes have trouble dealing with the mentally ill. Mary Lou Brncik’s son suffers from schizoaffective disorder. He was tased and arrested for not cooperating with police while he was in the midst of an episode. Brncik jumped into the criminal justice system, “and really just started working to help him, and saw how easy it was for someone to go to prison, someone with a mental illness." Now, Brncik works to keep them out, running the nonprofit David’s Hope.

She’s got a lot of work to do. That 2006 DOJ study found more than 1.25 million inmates with mental illness in U.S. prisons and jails. Brncik wants people to know these conditions can be better managed if they’re better understood.

“A mental illness is an organic brain disease and it affects behavior. So just as a diabetic is affected by not having the right amount of insulin in their system, a person with a mental illness is affected by their brain not functioning the way it should,” Brncik said.

The challenges faced by these defendants are understood by the team at Glendale’s Mental Health Court. “What we’re looking at here is, what is in the best interests of society and this individual? Because we can help make society safer if we can get these people stable and keep them stable,” said Judge Elizabeth Finn.

There’s also a court like this in Tempe, and there are more and more cropping up nationwide. According to the Council of State Governments, there were just a few of these courts in the late 1990s. By 2007, there were nearly 200.