Jackson County considers mental health court

From the Medford Mail Tribune, October 3, 2010

Mental health care activists are holding a public forum Saturday, Oct. 9, to discuss the creation of a new division within Jackson County’s Circuit Court system — one designed to help those in the criminal justice system who also are mentally ill.

Like the county’s already existing family and drug courts, a mental health court would protect the public while addressing the specific needs of mentally ill offenders by mandating and providing treatment programs, said Estelle Womak, board member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness — Southern Oregon, or NAMI-SO, and member of the Jackson County Mental Health Advisory Board.

Studies show mental health courts ease suffering, help reduce recidivism and promote fiscal responsibility, Womak said.

“The hope is in the long run that the court will end up saving money, while it improves the lives of people who are caught up in the justice system due to their mental illness,” Womak said.

The forum’s discussion panelists will include Oregon Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Lisa Greif, Jeff Krolick, clinical director of Options for Southern Oregon, and Josephine County District Attorney Steven Campbell.

“All the speakers have some background, experience or are very interested,” Womak said.

Nine counties in Oregon have mental health courts, including Josephine County. Data on Josephine County’s court show recidivism rates are dropping. There is also positive data coming out of Alaska’s longer-running mental health courts, she said.

“They are saving money in not having to house offenders in jail-like facilities for as long an amount of time,” said Womak, adding offenders can be placed in mandatory treatment programs and placed back into the community in shared, supervised housing.

NAMI has worked to get a mental health court up and running in Jackson County for several years, Womak said. Local and state political officials were backing the effort and things were moving forward, then the economy crashed, she said.

“That was a setback,” Womak said, adding the organization is trying to get the project back on track, funded in part by grants from the Department of Justice.

“We know this isn’t fast,” she said. “It’s at least a two- or three-year process. But it has to start somewhere.”