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Metro Court works to get mentally ill help, not court date

Since 1949, our country has recognized the month of May as Mental Health Awareness Month. Each year, the Mental Health America organization adopts a new theme in order to promote public awareness of mental health issues. In line with this year’s theme, “You are Not Alone,” the Metropolitan Court, with its criminal justice partners, has joined with the New Mexico Behavioral Health Services Division (BHSD) and the University of New Mexico to develop and implement a program to provide support to individuals with mental illness who enter the criminal justice system.

Our program, the Forensic Navigation Program, a first-of-its-kind in our state, will work to transform how we respond to people with mental illness charged with crimes. The program will start by assisting those charged with minor crimes, called misdemeanors. The program has the ultimate goal of moving those individuals from the judicial system into community-based treatment.

The project will initially focus on individuals diagnosed as mentally incompetent to stand trial yet who repeatedly enter the judicial system at the misdemeanor level. These charges are often for such things as shoplifting or trespassing.

Currently, if the government charges a person with a misdemeanor, and the court finds that due to a mental illness he or she is mentally incompetent to stand trial, the court must dismiss charges. This is because due process and our state law requires that a person must fully understand their criminal charges and the legal process before a conviction and punishment can occur. Individuals in that situation who have repeatedly had charges filed and dismissed have frustrated the courts and the community. Through implantation of the program, we hope to see some positive changes.

Our project will start small by focusing on a handful of repeat offenders who have frequently appeared on the Metropolitan Court’s mental competency docket. We intend the program “navigator” to intervene and help guide these individuals to connect to already existing community support systems. Typically, these individuals have resources available and are often involved in services at some level. However, due to problems with such things as housing, transportation and addiction, mental illness symptoms become exacerbated, leading to criminal activity. The navigator will assess the situation and try to ensure that individuals get basic needs and treatment. This may be as simple as facilitating transportation to a doctor’s appointment or filling out an application for housing services. If a person does not have any services, the navigator will work on making connections and ensuring one-on-one support in developing a treatment and social improvement plan.

This program will not impact or change existing laws. We will just make an effort to navigate people with mental illness away from the criminal justice system. We will rely on government agency collaboration and individuals for making this pilot program successful. The program is completely voluntary. However, we have found that often those with mental illness are just as frustrated as the justice system with the situation they are in of repeatedly getting arrested. In following the Mental Health Awareness month theme, we will try to make sure they do not feel alone and offer to help where we can.

Judge Maria I. Dominguez was appointed and elected to Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court’s Criminal Division bench in 2008. She was elected chief judge of the state’s busiest court in August 2020. Opinions expressed here are solely those of the judge individually and not those of the court.