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Members of the mental health court planning team gathered for their first meeting on June 24, 2009.
Harris County Felony Mental Health Court

In 2009 the Felony Mental Health Court (FMHC) was unanimously approved by both the Harris County Criminal District Court Judges and the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. The court is now seeking funding. The FMHC was included in Harris County’s Budget Memo for 2010, but was not funded in the spring due to limited financial resources. The Court will seek funding from Harris County at the mid-year budget review. The requested budget is $316,616 for a court coordinator, a master’s level licensed social worker, and a one-half time psychiatrist. Indirect cost for staff assigned to the court, including a bailiff, clerk, and prosecutor, is $248,470. Indigent defense funds will cover the cost of defense counsel. It is anticipated that by the second year of operation the cost of the FMHC will be offset by the savings in reduced jail expenditures and hospitalization of participants.

 

The court effort is headed by Judge Jan Krocker, who was designated by the Criminal District Court Judges to preside over the FMHC. Judge Krocker, who serves in the 184th District Court, will volunteer her time to preside over the Felony Mental Health Court, in addition to handling her regular docket.

 

Planned as a problem-solving court, the FMHC will emphasize public safety, lowering recidivism and hospitalization, and improved quality of life for defendants with mental illness. Judge Krocker will meet frequently with the participants. The judge will rely heavily on praise and encouragement, but will utilize sanctions, including incarceration, when needed. The FMHC will be committed to a recovery model and the judge will engage the defendant in discussions about his or her desires in the treatment process and goals for the future.

 

There is a great need for such a court. A report submitted to the Harris County Commissioners Court on June 19, 2009, by Dr. Barry Mahoney of the Justice Management Institute, noted that “[a]pproximately 25% of the inmates in the jail (over 2,500) have some type of mental health problem, as indicated by the fact that they are prescribed psychotropic medications. The Harris County Jail is now the largest facility providing mental health services in the State of Texas.” Dr. Mahoney reported that about 90 percent of the inmates with mental illness have previously been in the jail, a reflection of the frequent “recycling” of many of these defendants through the criminal justice system.

Admission to the court will be voluntary. All defendants must have retained or received appointed counsel prior to assessment for the court; counsel will be provided for those who are indigent. The court will accept defendants with schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder (e.g. posttraumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder), cognitive disorder (e.g., dementia, traumatic brain Injury, and intellectual disabilities). Other mental illnesses (Axis I and Axis II) will be eligible on a case-by-case basis.

 

For acceptance into the court, there must be a relationship between the mental illness and the behavior which resulted in the criminal charge. A defendant will be admitted to the court only if resources are available in the community for treatment of the mental illness. Defendants with the most serious mental illness will be prioritized for participation in the court. A needs assessment, risk assessment for violence, and a psychiatric evaluation will be required for acceptance into the court. The clinical staff will recommend a treatment plan after consultation with a social worker and a review of the needs assessment.

 

While the court is not designed to deal directly with homelessness and housing instability, the FMHC will nevertheless seriously consider issues involving homelessness when prioritizing cases. Co-occurring disorders will be a focus of the court, which will emphasize substance abuse treatment and seek integrated treatment programs for mental health and substance abuse.

 

As finally approved, the court will accept annually 160 non-violent offenders with new cases who will receive pre-trial diversion, deferred adjudication or probation. Forty additional offenders who are serving a probated sentence for a violent or aggravated offense will be accepted into the court post-disposition for intensive supervision. Those admitted will be transferred from the 22 felony courts to the FMHC. The cases may be referred by judges, attorneys, law enforcement, jail personnel, case workers, family members, clergy and others.

 

The planning team for the court included more than 100 individuals with expertise in law and mental health. The planning team involved advocates for persons with mental illness and intellectual disabilities, volunteers, consumers, family members, representatives of victims’ organizations and religious leaders. It also included political staff, judges, court administrators, prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation officers and administrators, pre-trial services, court clerks, members of the juvenile mental health court team, a drug court manager, police and sheriff’s officers and administrators, representatives from the mental health authority, psychiatrists, psychologists, case managers, social workers, counselors, crisis managers, residential and non-residential treatment providers for mental health and substance abuse, director of a support alliance, and representatives from clubhouse organizations. The Houston Bar Association, Houston Ministers Against Crime, the NAACP, LULAC, Asian American Family Services, the Coalition for the Homeless, Healthcare for the Homeless, One Voice, U.S Vets and the Texas Correctional Office on Offenders with Medical and Mental Impairments (TCOOMMI) participated as well. The Mental Health Mental Retardation Authority (MHMRA), the Harris County Psychiatric Center, Harris County Hospital District, and Rusk State Hospital took active roles. The team was assisted by faculty from The University of Texas Health Science Center, Baylor College of Medicine, The University of Houston Downtown, the University of Houston (Main Campus), Rice University, and Sam Houston State University.

The FMHC will work closely with the community and the Texas Medical Center. Data collection and evaluation for the court will be provided by the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Houston Downtown. It is expected that social work interns and legal interns will be assigned to the court.

 

Click here to read the Felony Mental Health Court Planning Team Report. [ 1.0 mb ]
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