Alene Jacobs - Treatment, not punishment
Today in Yamhill County, when adults with mental illness or developmental disabilities get into trouble with the law, they don’t automatically go to jail. Offenders are given an option: treatment, support and regular check-ins with Judge Ronald W. Stone. Going on 10 years and still evolving, the 25th Judicial District’s mental health court, Court Coordinated Services, continues to offer alternatives to incarceration.
In January 2004, Court Coordinated Services (CCS) was announced in the Viewpoints section as somewhat of an experiment. Almost a decade later, the experiment’s success has become obvious.
Back in 2001, a deputy district attorney and the head of Yamhill County Health and Human Services commiserated over the number of mentally ill residents caught in a revolving door between hospital, jail, reoffending, hospital, jail. They wondered aloud whether something could be done.
Pete Earley’s compelling national best seller, “Crazy,” made clear the horror of the revolving door plight of mentally ill people by describing the experiences of his bipolar son, and his family, with the criminal justice and mental health systems. But it was not a new story.
History of treatment
Concern for the ordeals of the mentally ill who come into contact with the criminal justice system was an issue in the 1840s, before the Civil War. Social activist Dorothea Dix successfully lobbied state legislatures to create public psychiatric hospitals to keep mentally ill citizens out of jail. By the 1880s, a census of U.S. jails revealed that only 0.7 percent of inmates were mentally ill by 1880s standards.
By the 1990s, rates of schizophrenia and bipolar disorders in prison populations once again had grown to three to six times greater than the community at large. The shuttering of psychiatric hospitals across the nation contributed to the increase. While the expectation was that former or future patients would find support and mental health treatment in their communities, that was not the case for many.
Obstacles to treatment
In Yamhill County, for example, many people are prevented from seeking medical and mental health care because they do not have private insurance, Oregon Health Plan coverage or the means to pay outright. Compounding the problem, people with untreated mental illness often lack the insight to know when they need help. Add the likelihood of homelessness among these marginalized members of society, and it becomes clear why people fall through the cracks of the community mental health system.
With their disabilities untreated and, often, made worse by drug and alcohol use, the mentally ill often attract attention from law enforcement. But jails have never proved to be effective treatment for mental illness or developmental disability. And jail is expensive. Treatment courts offer a humane, cost-effective alternative.
In “Crazy,” Earley describes how his son started on his “criminal” journey in a manic phase: breaking into a stranger’s home and taking a bubble bath. In my role as treatment court coordinator, I hear parents with similar stories. One daughter pointed an (unloaded) shotgun at her father because he was “sending the lambs to slaughter.” A mom recounted how her college-senior son attacked EMTs during his first psychotic break with reality. More recently, the mother of a soon-to-be-adult son expressed her concern that, someday, he would get into trouble. She was relieved to know that CCS existed.
Treatment court solution
Back to 2001: Yes, something could be done for those trapped in the revolving arrest cycle, as mental health courts became successful in other parts of the country. First, we had to apply for a grant, and once awarded, there were a multitude of steering committee meetings. There were visits to Seattle and Clackamas County to see how their mental health courts worked, and the committee worked to prepare for many situations and to satisfy all the stakeholders.
Never fond of endless meetings, Judge Stone then said, “Let’s get to work.” The time had come. Nov. 6, 2003, marked the first CCS hearing, with one participant.
Since then, 117 residents have participated in CCS. Of those, 80 have completed the program successfully. A few have returned on new charges, making them ineligible for diversion. District Attorney Brad Berry and municipal judges from McMinnville and Newberg established a process for including defendants from neighboring municipal courts. We are able to deal with more difficult offenders, and recently we included some individuals on formal probation.
In addition, much has been done to allow law enforcement officials alternatives to arrest when confronted with a person whose disability is driving negative behavior. Yamhill County Adult Mental Health meets regularly to share concerns and develop solutions with partner agencies such as the Sheriff’s Department, police departments, and hospital emergency medical departments in McMinnville and Newberg. Community outreach continues to be in the forefront of their efforts.
CCS’s focus is on a combination of support and accountability. Jail is a sanction of last resort, but it rarely is necessary. If I were to generalize, I’d say that CCS participants did not want to commit crimes, care deeply about how their behaviors affect others and want to stay out of trouble. In CCS, we focus on the triumphs, which are many and varied.
During the past year, we were amazed by a YouTube video of one participant’s robot creation at community college. We applauded photos of another participant’s Special Olympics weightlifting participation. Other participants have brought in their artwork, favorite music or other projects, along with their families, to share with Judge Stone and the CCS team — a far cry from departmental case processing and business-as-usual court dates.
A nonprofit Yamhill County Treatment Courts Foundation recently was set up. Its goals are promoting public awareness and seeking additional funds for CCS activities. It requires money to offer a comprehensive continuum of therapeutic, restorative and support services for CCS participants, as well as for participants in the drug court program.
Grants and tax-deductible donations to the foundation will be used to help participants obtain safe housing, appropriate medication, transportation and other basic needs until they become self-sufficient or qualify for other public funding.
Guest writer Alene Jacobs coordinates adult treatment courts, including the mental health court and two adult drug courts, for Yamhill Circuit Court. She has a master’s degree in counseling psychology from Lewis & Clark College and has lived in McMinnville for 26 years.