Like most of the 200 defendants going through Hennepin County’s mental health court this year, Terrance Johnson wasn’t going to miss a hearing.
So Johnson, who at the time was in a psychiatric ward for treatment of life-threatening depression and anxiety, received a furlough and appeared in the Minneapolis courtroom in jeans and scrubs.
After years of struggle, the 42-year-old man now works as a chef at a halfway house and plans to file an income tax return for the first time in a decade. Without the court, “I might have ended up killing myself,” he said recently.
Mental health can be a key factor in many crimes and confrontations. Last week, a 68-year-old man suffering from a brain disorder was shot and killed by New Hope police after he opened fire on them. While Raymond Kmetz wouldn’t have been eligible for mental health court because he was never found mentally competent to stand trial, scores of people like Johnson find valuable help there.
For them, mental health court can be their first exposure to comprehensive services and a real push to succeed from a judge, a prosecutor, a probation officer and a social worker.
A referral to the voluntary program usually comes from an attorney or probation officer. Once a defendant is admitted, the court provides help in finding housing, employment and therapy, sticking to a medication plan and staying away from drugs and alcohol. Meanwhile, legal issues stay on a back burner until a defendant’s situation stabilizes.
Judge Kerry Meyer runs the court, in session two days a week. If funding could be found to hire more staffers, she said, she would have no problem filling her courtroom all week.
“What Hennepin County has done for mental health the past couple of years, it’s really coming to a head,” said Kellie Charles, an assistant public defender. “Our mental health court is a good model for the country to follow.”
The court’s 2003 start-up was one of the county’s fledgling efforts to help the ever-growing population of people with serious mental illness. It grew into the chief way to handle legal concerns stemming from this vulnerable group. More recently, other county and state initiatives will reduce the amount of time those with mental illness spend in jail.
Competency hearings for legal proceedings have been expedited, and an in-house team at the Hennepin County jail can quickly screen inmates with mental illness. The county has added another probation officer to help process cases. And at the Legislature, an effort is underway to provide $8 million to build four statewide “recovery centers” as an alternative to jail for repeat minor-crime offenders who are mentally ill.
Smaller mental health courts have been developed in Ramsey County and Duluth.
Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek is among those who have advocated for mentally ill offenders. About 30 percent of the nearly 40,000 people booked into the county jail each year have mental health issues, he said. “We don’t treat people in jail or run a mental health facility,” he said.
Even before Hennepin County’s formal court kicked off, former Judge Richard Hopper had tried a smaller version after seeing the same group of mentally ill defendants cycling through his courtroom for low-level crimes.
Since then, the criteria have crystallized: Potential participants must have a mental illness, brain injury or developmental delay that has significantly affected their lives, and be screened by a team that will be active in their cases.
Defendants can be considered for the court when charged, as part of a plea agreement or after a conviction. Sex offenders aren’t admitted, but violent offenders can be.
Meyer said the court tries to resolve cases in six months, but some defendants stay in the program much longer because “they are dependent on our support.”
Defendants must abide by a few basic rules: Take prescribed medications, don’t self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, show up for court and other appointments and commit no new crimes.
Rooting for defendants
Last month, a team met to consider new referrals and review current cases. With a stack of files in front of her, Meyer orchestrated the discussions about clients like a maestro. She blurted out, “Crap!” at a bad report. The whole group cheered at the news that another person had turned a corner.
Most of the group then spent two more hours in court checking in with 35 people.
One woman talked about “making some mistakes,” but said she wouldn’t blame the liquor store across from where she lived. After taking out his earbuds to stop listening to music, a male defendant told the judge he “was feeling pretty bad.” Meyer did her best to buoy him and asked him to return in a few weeks.
Charles said the court’s program “is no cakewalk.” For defendants who make it through, the legal benefits can range from having charges dismissed or lowered to avoiding jail time. The court is so effective, she said, that she would like to see it take in more clients with crimes more serious than the typical theft and property offenses.
Meyer said about 60 percent of participants graduate from her court. Yet success also can be measured in some who fail — if they require less hospitalization and incarceration, or if subsequent crimes are less severe or less frequent.
“It becomes cost-effective when offenders aren’t visiting emergency rooms, detox or jail,” said Michelle Jacobson, an assistant city attorney. “Even if they aren’t committing a crime, they can easily become victims of crime.”
The gift of structured time
Johnson spent more than three years in mental health court before his recent graduation. For much of his life, he dealt with anxiety and depression, which he tried to medicate with methamphetamine and alcohol. Homeless for years, he hospitalized himself when suicidal thoughts filled his head. “I couldn’t get my mind out of it,” he said from his apartment in Wisconsin.
He tried to get caught shoplifting so he would have a place to stay in jail. Then an attorney referred him to mental health court, giving him needed structure, he says.
“In a regular court, a client may feel like the attorneys and judge hate them and that things move fast,” said Richard LeRoy, a defense attorney with the Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis. “This court ... [is] one of the best programs I’ve seen in 27 years of doing this.”