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Mental Health Court provides help all around

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — She was the last defendant on the docket, and although the young woman had just sat through 21 cases before Metro Court Judge Linda Rogers, she was still bubbly and fresh as if she had been first up.

“I will give it 110 percent,” she gushed. “I am very excited to be in the program.”

And it was exciting, in a sense. The woman had been mired in a morass of mental illness, heroin and meth addictions and alcohol abuse that had landed her in jail for misdemeanor violations, including the drunken driving charge that had brought her here before Rogers.

Now that she was accepted into the Mental Health Court over which Rogers presides, the woman finally had a real shot at clearing up her criminal record and righting herself.

At least that’s the hope.

Few would dispute that the criminal justice system is overburdened by defendants with mental illnesses who repeatedly commit crimes and for whom the system is poorly equipped to handle. Many of those folks are accused of misdemeanors such as shoplifting, drinking in public and trespassing and pose more of a nuisance than a threat to the community.

Metro Court’s mental health program offers those defendants a clearer, saner path toward getting the help they need and getting off the judicial merry-go-round.

“We’re looking at criminal behavior as an expression of underlying mental health issues,” said Ellen Lloyd, an assistant district attorney assigned to the Mental Health Court team at Metro Court. “These are people who need help, not people who are bad.”

The Mental Health Court was established by Metro Court Judge Kevin Fitzwater in 2003. Like other specialty courts, it includes intensive treatment and supervision by a team of legal and mental health providers and regular trips before the judge rather than incarceration. For most misdemeanor offenders, it serves as a pre-prosecution diversion – meaning that those who successfully complete the program, which can take three months to a year, serve no jail time and have their charges dismissed.

Non-felony DWI offenders, however, must plead guilty and then enter the program as an alternative to a jail sentence.

“Therapeutic courts save money for merchants who deal with these crimes, for the jail, for the hospitals and, obviously, for the families of these folks. It also saves incalculable time for police who do not have to respond repeatedly to these call-outs,” said Rogers, who took over the program four years ago. “The defendant benefits the most, but we do not forget this is part of the criminal justice system.”

Which is to say, the program is not easy. Not only must participants maintain close contact with their team, but they must follow medication plans, attend therapy and submit to alcohol and drug testing.

“We expect a lot from these folks,” said Jean Klein, program manager. “But in the end, we connect them to society, not to jail.”

Metro Court officials say the program has reduced the recidivism rate for those who successfully complete the program by about 90 percent.

More importantly, they say folks who have had trouble finding appropriate mental health care receive it because of the partnerships the court’s team has with agencies such as the University of New Mexico Psychiatric Center, St. Martin’s Behavioral Health Services and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

If there is one criticism, it is that the program can’t accommodate all the individuals who might benefit, nor can it help those found incompetent or who face more serious, violent charges.

“Our motto is, ‘It depends,’ ” Rogers said. “People have all levels of mental illness. But we try hard to change the can’t to can.”

In fall 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services awarded nearly $1.3 million in federal funding to the Mental Health Court and the DWI Drug Court, another specialty program at Metro Court.

The three-year grant was a much-needed financial boost, but what makes these courts run is the compassion and countless hours put in by Rogers and her team, which besides Klein and Lloyd includes public defender Esperanza Lujan, court clinician Michael Harrison and probation officers Robert Alden, Javier Argueta and Valerie Herrera.

“I’m super-lucky because everyone is involved because they want to be,” Rogers said. “They are committed to the work.”

And maybe that’s why for the young woman newly inducted into the program, waiting through all the other Mental Health Court cases that day was not such a burden.

Here, prosecutor and defense attorney are not adversaries but advocates, probation officers have a good grasp of their clients’ needs and the judge is not judgmental but judiciously encouraging.

“For the next year, you and I are going to get to know each other really well,” Rogers tells the young woman. “I think you’re ready for this.”

To which the woman replied in her sing-song voice: “Oh, I am. Thank you.”

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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