Six more to graduate from Behavioral Health Court

By BUSTER WOLFE,

The Hattiesburg Behavioral Health Court – the first one in the country when it was established in 2010 – will congratulate six graduates Thursday afternoon in a ceremony at the Municipal Courthouse.

The program was initiated with a goal to help provide misdemeanor offenders who present mental health issues with resources and treatment. These programs go a long way in reducing recidivism, improving mental health outcomes and reducing the length of incarceration for participants.

Municipal Court Judge Jerry Evans, who oversees the program, said the program has been beneficial to the Hub City.

“A lot of courts in a lot of municipalities, a lot of counties and a lot of states are seeing the need for it also,” he said. “We call it a Behavioral Health Court to avoid the stigma of being a mental health court. I don’t know how many times I have heard people say, ‘I don’t want to get in this; I’m not crazy.’ To which, I say, ‘We’re not saying you’re crazy. We’re just saying that you have some problems that probably appropriate counseling will help resolve.’

The results from the program’s graduates have been encouraging.

“Statistically, it has proven to help reduce recidivism and the crime rate,” Evans said. “Our hope is that we can catch and identify these individuals and addition to getting them the help mentally, but help with the drug addiction.”

This program is funded by a grant through the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Program. The treatment partner is Pine Belt Mental Healthcare Resources

Most of the clients in the Behavioral Health Court are arrested as the result of misdemeanors and end up in Municipal Court. Felony offenders go to circuit court, where Drug Court performs a similar service on a more intensive scale.

“They parallel each other and sometimes they overlap,” Evans said. “Every Friday before we have the court session before the participants come in, I get a list from the young lady who works in the court for Pine Belt. She basically gathers the information on each individual, whether they are making their appointments and invariably 50 percent of them show up as secondary substance abusers.”

Evans said he would have overseen the program for the past five years in October.

“It was in its infancy about a year before I came,” he said. “It has gradually grown and grown to the point where we have a system. Of course, we are using federal grant money. We will continue to the use the grant money through September. After September, I don’t know what we are going to do because without the collaborations with the mental health community, particularly with Pine Belt Mental Health, then we’re not going to go anywhere because we can’t get these people to Pine Belt.”

The majority of misdemeanor offenders are struggling financially, Evans said.

“Most of the people are low-income, below the poverty level and it’s just short of impossible for them to pay,” he said. “This grant that we had has allowed us to supplement this as much as we can, but it has also allowed Pine Belt to provide us with someone in the courtroom with someone who can do intake. Of course, we depend a lot on the police department and the jail to identify these individuals when they come in.”

Behavioral Health Courts, which are classified as Specialty Courts, have shown their benefits to the community, Evans said. Some of the statistics include:

 

·      Nationwide, 75 percent of Specialty Court graduates remain arrest-free at least two years after leaving the program.

·      Studies examining long-term outcome of individual Specialty Courts have found that reductions in crime last at least three years and can endure for more than 14 years.

·      The most rigorous and conservative scientific "meta-analyses" have all concluded that Specialty Courts significantly reduce crime as much as 45 percent more than other sentencing options.

·      Nationwide, for every $1 invested in Specialty Court, taxpayers save as much as $3.36 in avoided criminal justice costs alone.

·      Studies have shown benefits range up to $27 for every $1 invested in the program when considering other cost offsets such as saving from reduced victimization and healthcare service utilization.

·      Specialty Courts produce cost savings ranging from $3,000 to $13,000 per client, reflecting reduced prison costs, reduced revolving-door arrests and trials as well as reduced victimization.

·      Specialty Courts provide more comprehensive and closer supervision than other community-based supervision programs.

·      Specialty Courts are six times more likely to keep offenders in treatment long enough for them to get better.

·      Specialty Courts reduce methamphetamine use by more than 50 percent compared to outpatient treatment alone.

·      Parents in Family Specialty Courts are twice as likely to go to treatment and complete it.

·      Children of Family Specialty Court participants spend significantly less time in out-of-home placements such as foster care.

·      Family re-unification rates are 50 percent higher for Family Specialty Court participants.

If participants complete all the program requirements set forth by Evans, their charges will be dropped. To graduate, each client must have been on the Behavioral Health Court program for at least a year, attended all scheduled court sessions, has not had any additional trouble with the law since being on the program, has no drug or alcohol abuse since being on the program and has attended all scheduled clinician and group therapy sessions.