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October 23, 2013

Macomb County launches first mental health court

By Jeremy Selweski
C & G Staff Writer

MACOMB COUNTY — With the introduction of the Macomb County Circuit Court’s new Mental Health Court docket, county officials are seeking to help defendants with mental illness get the treatment they need rather than simply putting them in jail.

The Mental Health Court, which officially launched on Oct. 15, aims to efficiently utilize both court and community resources to connect criminal defendants with the best and most appropriate treatment options available, while at the same time requiring accountability for the underlying crime. Following an assessment and acceptance, defendants will be diverted into the Mental Health Court docket for judicially supervised, community-based treatment. The court will initially only be available for adult offenders, but there are plans to expand it to juvenile offenders soon.

Macomb County Probate Court Judge Carl Marlinga pointed out that mental health courts are part of a national movement that has grown steadily in popularity over the last 15 years.

“Without a mental health court,” he said, “these defendants would just be thrown into the same criminal system as everyone else. We need to address their problems in a way that enhances their life while also preventing them from falling into criminal activity again. This system is very effective because it always keeps these twin goals in mind.”

Marlinga noted that in modern county jails, 15-25 percent of the inmates are typically mental health patients who could be better served by a mental health court docket. For this reason and others, Macomb Sheriff Anthony Wickersham is also supportive of the new program, as it could help his department deal with the ongoing overcrowding issues at the Macomb County Jail.

“In any criminal justice system, there should be other alternatives than incarceration,” Wickersham said. “Right now, we arrest people and put them in jail, but is that really where they need to be? I think this court is a really good idea that will provide proper treatment for people with mental health issues.”

The mission of the Mental Health Court is to improve public safety and reduce repeated criminal activity by criminal defendants who suffer from severe mental illness. In addition to Marlinga and Wickersham, the court has been championed by Chief Probate Judge John Foster, Probate Judge Kathryn George, Circuit Court Judge Matthew Switalski, County Executive Mark Hackel, County Prosecutor Eric Smith, Macomb County Community Mental Health, Macomb County Community Corrections, and the Macomb County Board of Commissioners. It is a key component of an effort to implement a countywide mental health initiative.

According to a recent report released by the State Court Administrator’s Office (SCAO), mental health courts have achieved great success in Michigan, with participants’ return to criminal activity rate about three times lower than that of a comparison group of similar offenders. Marlinga explained that among average defendants, more than 50 percent relapse into criminal behavior after being arrested, while the rate for mental health court defendants is only about 18 percent.

“Offenders in this program will have some very simple rules to follow,” he said. “And if they do what the judge tells them to do, their reward at the end of it is that prison time will be avoided. But judges cannot coddle these people — defendants have to know that if they mess up, they’re going to jail. In order for this program to work, the threat of consequences has to be very real.”

In addition to meeting with county judges on a regular basis to monitor their progress, Marlinga stated, mental health court participants are eligible to receive therapy, counseling, medical treatment, case management and social worker services. Wickersham believes that this approach will be much more effective than the old model.

“Our system should be about putting people who are a danger to society in jail,” he said, “and getting mental health treatment for those who are not but who still committed a crime. What we’ll try to do is put these people through our program so that they can come out of it as productive members of society and not resort to criminal activity again.”

In terms of funding, Marlinga emphasized that the Mental Health Court will not require any new hires in Macomb County, nor will it result in any additional compensation for current employees. All expenses will be covered by the existing budget of each participating department. However, to help the program get off the ground, the SCAO recently awarded Macomb County a $108,370 grant in support of the court for the 2014 fiscal year.

And if residents are worried that this system will put dangerous criminals back on the street, Marlinga pointed out that it will primarily focus on nonviolent defendants. Those whose cases involve homicide, assault, criminal sexual conduct and other severe offenses will not be considered for the program.

“We will not take cases where there is very little chance for us to achieve positive results,” Marlinga said. “We don’t want to endanger society by opening our doors to a whole bunch of violent offenders, so judges will have to determine if a defendant is a good candidate for this court. We’re not talking about people who are not guilty by reason of insanity — these are people who have mental illness but are fully aware that they’ve done something wrong.”

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Jeremy Selweski at jSelweski@candgnews.com or at (586)218-5004.