Monday, February 10, 2003

Advocates laud plans
for mental health court

Nonviolent offenders would get
treatment rather than jail time

By Debra Barayuga

Jailing nonviolent people who suffer from mental health illnesses generally will not prevent future offenses, says the head of the state Adult Mental Health Division.

State of Hawaii In fact, it can be counterproductive, Tom Hester says.

Mental health advocates are lauding a proposed mental health court, similar to the state Drug Court, where nonviolent, mentally ill offenders would be offered treatment and other services as an alternative to incarceration.

Chief Justice Ronald Moon, in his State of the Judiciary address last month, cited the mental health court as one of the steps the Judiciary will take to tackle the growing number of cases involving mentally ill defendants.

Moon said the Judiciary recently submitted a grant proposal to the Bureau of Justice Assistance seeking funds for a demonstration project. It would not require additional legislation and would be incorporated into the existing court system.

Hester, chief of the Adult Mental Health Division of the Department of Health, said a mental health court where participants agree to treatment for their mental illness under some court oversight is not only much more humane, but also likely more effective in reducing future offenses.

Repeat offenders are running up costs, said Circuit Judge Marcia Waldorf, who has had an interest in mentally ill defendants in her 18 years on the bench.

"It's very expensive to incarcerate and re-incarcerate someone if we're talking three or four days at a time for real manini offenses," she said.

The premise of a mental health court is that with proper diversion, monitoring and intensive supervision, there is no gap between the court and service providers so a person will not fall through the cracks and re-offend, Waldorf said. She was asked by Moon more than a year ago to design a mental health court here.

"I would see the same people coming back and felt really inadequate in how to deal with them, and I knew there had to be services to link them up to and speed it up," she said.

Waldorf said the kinds of cases that would qualify for mental health court are "quality of life" or low-grade offenses -- not homicides or violent assaults -- but not necessarily just misdemeanors.

The state Office of the Public Defender is concerned about how the mentally ill are treated in the criminal courts, particularly those who keep coming for seemingly petty offenses such as trespassing, illegal camping or shoplifting, said state Public Defender Jack Tonaki.

"There are a significant number of our clients with mental illnesses that, if such a court were established, would stand to benefit from services like that," he said.

What is sorely needed are community health centers or outreach centers that can provide services for the mentally ill but have been cut back in recent years, he said.

Sen. Colleen Hanabusa (D, Nanakuli-Makua), chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said she is encouraged that the Judiciary is looking at alternative funding rather than simply looking to the state for assistance.

"I feel what (Moon) has shown, by using the resources allocated to him, is the clear ability to act independently and meet these needs and apply the resolution within the context of the Judiciary," she said.

Hester said it is not unusual for people with severe mental illness to be involved in misdemeanor, nonviolent type of crimes such as panhandling or illegal camping.

A lot of mentally ill people bring themselves to the attention of the criminal justice system when in fact there are more effective ways to deal with them, said Ben Carroll, president of the board at the Mental Health Association in Hawaii.

"Treatment, not jail, is what's needed," Carroll said.

Sadly, as with drug abusers, someone who is mentally disabled has to "go pretty low" before they get the attention they need, Carroll said.

"You pretty much have to get busted to access some of the services," he said.

Dancetta Kamai, sister of entertainer Mackey Feary, who suffered from drug addiction and depression and later hanged himself in a jail cell, said a mental health court is good news for people who are seeking treatment rather than returning to prison.

"Until it's your family member that's suffering from mental illness and you see firsthand what it does to them, you don't understand," she said.

Bud Bowles, executive director of United Self Help, a consumer advocate for the mentally ill, recalls a case where a mentally ill homeless man was being sought by police on a warrant for violating probation. The man he calls "Joe" apparently had stopped taking his medication and got into a fight at a local shelter with another homeless man.

Bowles had helped Joe by getting him to join a support group, obtain psychological help and take medication to manage his illness. Joe was doing well when Bowles learned police were looking for him.

He said he tried everything to keep Joe from returning to jail. "He's sick, but he's well now and if we can work something amiable, he'll do it," he said he told police. Police eventually showed up at one of Bowles' weekly meetings where Joe was in attendance, surrounded the place and took him into custody.

"I thought, Why can't we have a meaningful arrest process with his illness in mind?" Bowles said.

The judge was sympathetic, but a violation was a violation, and Joe was locked up for six months at Halawa. "What bothers me is, a person acts a certain way because of illness and gets punished instead of treatment," Bowles said.

Outpatient treatment would have been more effective than being locked up, he said.

"He's a darling person. Why punish the guy? Just treat him."

State Health Department
Office of the Public Defender

E-mail to City Desk


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