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July 24, 2017

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Nevada’s mental health courts are in serious jeopardy

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Steve Marcus

An out-of-custody offender who had not been fulfilling his requirements is handcuffed during a mental health court hearing at the Regional Justice Center on Thursday, April 28, 2011.

Mental Health Court

Judge Jackie Glass speaks to an in-custody offender during a mental health court hearing at the Regional Justice Center on Thursday, April 28, 2011. Launch slideshow »

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You can tell Clark County’s mental health court sessions on Thursday afternoons are informal because the judge stands behind a lectern in street clothes, and there isn’t a phalanx of high-priced attorneys to be found.

But dealing with adult criminal offenders who suffer from bipolar disorders or schizophrenia is still serious business. During last week’s hourlong session, District Judge Jackie Glass reviewed 28 cases in rapid succession. Among them were jail detainees in restraints seeking admission to the court’s mental health care program and others who live in transitional housing or with relatives who updated the judge on their progress with drug treatment and community service.

One young man skipped a therapy session at church, claiming he was sick and fell asleep, but he was admonished by Glass: “We don’t think you’re invested in your treatment and we have concerns about that.” He was led away in handcuffs, ordered to spend 24 hours in jail.

Another offender appeared before the judge and admitted he wasn’t taking his medication, including insulin. So Glass donned her overcoat, telling him she was wearing a judge’s robe, and said: “If I order you to take your medication, will you take it?” He nodded affirmatively and returned to his seat.

Mental health court has kept mentally ill individuals out of jails and emergency rooms after committing crimes ranging from petty larceny to assault, but it could vanish July 1. That’s because Gov. Brian Sandoval’s call for shared sacrifice to help solve the state’s budget deficit would kill Clark County’s mental health court and others in Washoe and Carson City counties, judges and mental health advocates say.

They argue that Sandoval’s proposal to make the counties, rather than the state, fund mental health courts won’t work because the counties are strapped for money.

Among those leading the outcry is Glass, who helped start Clark County’s mental health court in 2003 after it received seed money through a federal grant. Since the court was established 107 participants have graduated from the program.

“It’s a shame that the governor didn’t put that funding in the budget,” Glass said. “The individuals who would be helped will have a very difficult time receiving treatment.”

And that, she said, would lead to more recidivism.

Under Sandoval’s plan to cut about $100 million from the state Mental Health and Developmental Services Division, Clark County’s mental health court would lose $1.7 million a year. That’s enough to provide substance abuse treatment, temporary housing, and life skills programming to about three-fourths of the 100 or more offenders who are under the court’s supervision. The remaining caseload is funded by additional revenue from the Nevada Supreme Court and is not in jeopardy.

Sandoval spokeswoman Mary-Sarah Kinner said in an email the governor has no intention of backing down. The proposal to transfer financial responsibility for the mental health courts to the counties is in Senate Bill 469, which awaits a hearing before the Senate Finance Committee.

“The governor is certainly aware of the concerns expressed by county officials, and like all Nevadans he is concerned about the state’s financial situation,” Kinner said. “None of the budget decisions has been easy, but all are necessary if we are to bring spending into line with available revenues. The governor has confidence that local governments will be able to provide these services, just as the state will continue to do its part in other areas.”

But Clark County spokesman Erik Pappa said the county cannot afford to fund the mental health court because of its own budget deficit, which is projected at $105 million for the fiscal year beginning in July. Pappa said that doesn’t include an additional $250 million hit that the county could suffer over the next two years through a combination of additional revenue loss to the state and an increase in unfunded mandates from the state under Sandoval’s budget plan.

“We agree with Judge Glass that it’s the state’s responsibility to fund mental health treatment,” Pappa said. “The county is facing its own fiscal challenges. It would be less expensive for the community if the state funded mental health services than to have people housed in jails and sent to emergency rooms.”

The state funding cutback also would hurt the Salvation Army in Southern Nevada, which gets $300,000 of the county’s $1.7 million to help provide housing and therapy services to participants in the mental health court, said Salvation Army Major Mike Olsen, director of its Owens Campus for Homeless and Mental Health Services. The Salvation Army serves 29 court participants.

“Right now my concern is the survival of our mental health program,” Olsen said. “Many of our clients require 24-hour attention. The only alternative for them is to be in jail.”

Instead of incarceration, felons are placed on probation as they attempt to complete a treatment regimen aimed at straightening out their lives. The program serves misdemeanor offenders.

Steve Roll, who manages Clark County’s specialty courts, said it costs taxpayers only $47 a day to have someone participate in mental health court, versus $142 a day in the Clark County Detention Center. And it’s possible individuals kept out of jail will get a job and become taxpayers, court spokeswoman Mary Ann Price said. “The most important thing is that these individuals have a stable residence, so we try to get them into transitional housing,” Roll said. “I would say that at least half of them were homeless.”

That was certainly the case with Mark Burchell, a former corrections officer with a bipolar disorder who wound up on the streets, sometimes even sleeping on cars’ hoods. But after graduating from Washoe County’s mental health court in 2005, Burchell was hired by the court to help participants with the program.

“It’s a little intimidating at first,” said Burchell, who is vice president of the state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “They have emotional difficulties so I talk to them about how I went through the program. It saved my life because I made a 360-degree turnaround.”

To Glass, one of the most important aspects of mental health court has been its ability to break up “the vicious cycle” of mentally ill offenders who medicate themselves with illegal drugs, then commit crimes to support their habit.

“Their families get fed up with them because they don’t know what else to do,” Glass said. “The program helps them get back on track and gets them stable on their meds so that they can get a job and be back with their families.”

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