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Crime & Punishment (and Reward)

Stories from several weeks of sitting in at mental health court

Patrick Sullivan - April 15th, 2013  

Two of the mental health court participants, an 18-year-old woman there for shoplifting and a 29-year-old man there for drunk driving, have been headed in different directions in recent weeks.

The older one is taking vocational training and doing well. He is making all of his therapy sessions and when he meets with his probation officer, he brings proof that he’s completed his required drug and alcohol testing and has been to the AA meetings he’s supposed to attend.

The younger one, who is still in high school, has been skirting the edge of trouble -- she’s missed some meetings, she’s had some suspicious test results, and she was recently caught in a car with some other folks who were smoking pot.

These are just two of the defendants in District Court Judge Michael Stepka’s mental health court, one of Michigan’s growing list of specialty courts. Grand Traverse County was one of nine places selected to test the program, beginning in 2009.

The specialty courts seek to free up jail space by identifying what’s causing a person to run afoul of the law and see if it can be addressed. It is hoped this approach can save money and improve lives.

If you attend a mental health court hearing, which takes place Wednesday afternoons, you can tell pretty quickly these are no ordinary days in court.

A FISHBOWL APPEARS

The tone of mental health court is usually nothing like that of a typical criminal court hearing.

The participants are there to report on their progress, and when they’re done, they’re supposed to stick around until everyone else is also done. They are encouraged to show support when someone does well.

At a hearing in February, the 29-year-old student was first up.

He walked to one of the attorney’s tables and sat down before the judge. Stepka asked him how he was doing.

“Yesterday I got a scholarship. I don’t know how I got it,” the man said.

He explained he had just received $1,000 though NMC. The announcement prompted a round of clapping.

The next week, Stepka had a surprise for him.

“How’s it going?” Stepka asked after the man took a seat in front of him at a table.

“Pretty good, and you, your honor?” A fishbowl appeared and the man stuck his hand inside. He won a reward for doing well -- a $25 gift certificate to an arts and crafts store.

COURT AS THERAPY

That’s how mental health court goes. A lot of it, anyway. At least when someone is doing well.

Judge Stepka addresses the participants by their first names. There is friendly chit-chat about their lives.

Mental health court is as much group therapy meeting as it is court hearing.

Another defendant -- a 26-year-old man there for a deferred plea in a domestic violence case -- told Stepka of his progress in treatment.

He said as part of his therapy he’d been keeping a journal of his daily activities and writing down his thoughts and feelings. He was also writing some poetry.

Stepka seemed intrigued and perhaps slightly concerned.

“Would you mind at some time sharing some of your poetry?” Stepka asked.

The man agreed to share.

There is an informality that makes these proceedings softer than regular court.

A HODGEPODGE OF PROBLEMS

The people on a recent day may have had being there in common, but they didn’t share a lot else.

They ranged in age from 18 to 53. Two of them were there for drunk driving. Another two had been charged with home invasion and pleaded guilty to illegal entry misdemeanors. Someone was charged with disorderly conduct. There was the one there for shoplifting. One got into a scuffle with police.

That’s about as violent as your offense could be and still qualify for the program, Stepka said.

They won’t take folks with criminal histories that include felony convictions for drugs, assault or criminal sexual conduct.

The people who work with the court -- a team consisting of a counselor from Community Mental Health, treatment providers, a probation agent, a transition house manager, and a prosecutor and defense attorney who act as advisors -- help the participants adjust to a clean and sober life and help them set themselves up in the world.

Some participants are headed for success -- an end to the weekly or semimonthly appearances before a judge and all sorts of required meetings; a new chance at a life without court-mandated restrictions.

Some are headed back to jail.

FAKERS WILL FAKE

Stepka said he often gets asked whether people try to fake their way into the court in search of lighter sanctions.

If that’s what they do, they’ve got a lot in store for themselves.

The program can last up to two years and it involves intensive supervision. Participants go to therapy, drug and alcohol testing -- possibly Alcoholic or Narcotics Anonymous meetings -- and they must attend regular court hearings.

It’s enough to bring to mind the paradox about whether someone who fakes their way into an asylum in fact deserved to be there in the first place.

Someone who isn’t committed won’t be able to succeed.

For example, in one case, Stepka said, someone was kicked out of the program for forging signatures on attendance slips from AA meetings.

He said the court has probation agents who have enough experience to spot when those slips have been forged. That person found themselves serving the rest of the maximum sentence they had originally faced, 93 days in jail.

A TEAM OF ADVISORS

The team of advisors meets each week to discuss everyone’s progress.

They talk about each case and decide whether someone should advance to another level, whether someone should graduate, or whether someone should receive an award. They also talk about whether someone should be sent to jail.

Mark Risk, who serves as the defense attorney advisor, said even though he is there to look out for the rights of the participants, he advocates jail for some when everything else has failed.

“All of the studies are showing a really short jail term is the most effective,” Risk said.

He said when he started working as an advisor to the court in 2010, of the roughly 15 participants, he had represented four or five of them in the past. He said he was pleased to see those people in the mental health court because he knew them well enough to know they would need special attention to succeed.

“When I was working with them before, I knew that they would not make it on regular probation,” Risk said.

It’s been even more gratifying, he said, to watch people finish the program and become productive members of society. He has watched some participants, for whom the jail used to have a revolving door, go on to get jobs, get homes and settle into the community as regular people.

ON THE BRINK OF JAIL

Some are still tough cases. Over a series of recent Wednesday hearings, that 18-year-old shoplifter found herself in deeper and deeper trouble.

First, there was a problem with her paperwork. She didn’t have the signed sheets to prove she attended AA when she was supposed to have them.

Stepka warned her she needed to do what was expected of her, and he told her: “you had a bit of a rough start, but we’ve worked our way through that.”

He assigned her an essay about the importance of finishing assignments.

The next week, Stepka learned she had turned in that essay late.

But that wasn’t the worst of it. She had also been found in a car on the way to school with others who were smoking marijuana. She said she didn’t smoke and Stepka warned her that her drug test better come back clean.

At the next hearing, Stepka said her test had come back with levels that indicated she may have attempted to mask a positive result by drinking lots of water before the test. She was also still failing to get AA sheets in to probation.

‘A CONTINUING SAGA’

In the 18-year-old’s case, the advisors had decided a week earlier that jail might have been appropriate after she was found in the car with the pot smokers.

Stepka decided to give her one more chance.

But when she showed up the next week and was still making excuses, the judge decided her chances were done, at least for the moment.

“Unfortunately, during the months that you’ve been with us this has essentially been a continuing saga,” Stepka told the teenager.

Stepka sent her to jail for two weekends and told her she was only barely staying in the mental health court program. She gasped and cried a bit.

“While you’re there, please think about whether you want to be in the program or not,” Stepka told her.

 
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