HANCOCK COUNTY – It’s not always easy for people to look at their actions and confront the issues that got them into trouble with the law.
But some defendants are doing just that under the county’s new behavioral health court.
It took a little longer than court officials had hoped to get the program off the ground, but the first meeting of the new court was held Friday, January 14, at Hancock 1 County Superior Court under the supervision of Judge DJ Davis.
“It was great to finally start,” Davis said after the first session.
Davis wanted to establish the new problem-solving court before taking office in January 2021 as Superior Court Judge 1. Its goal is to resolve a defendant’s major behavioral issues and address them rather than push the person through the court system without trying to resolve their underlying issues. If the program works, it will reduce the number of people who go through the justice system repeatedly.
Davis and program coordinator Kevin Minnick had hoped to get it up and running by September, but finding time to get all of the county judges involved; dealing with a sea of paperwork; COVID Complications; and a desire to refine how the program works delayed the start.
“There was just a lot of paperwork and stuff that we had to set up and sort out,” Davis said.
This involved bringing in officials from the prosecutor’s office and defense attorneys, getting their suggestions, and determining how the court program would work and who would be allowed in. Officials were keen to make sure they got the right kind of defendants. involved, a person willing to admit they have behavioral problems and would be willing to work on it.
Last week’s first session outlined roughly how officials run the well-established county drug court program at Hancock County Circuit Court, overseen by Judge Scott Sirk. There, the defendants talk about their problems and the progress of the treatment; hearing from motivational speakers; and are held accountable for their actions – all while trying to get their lives back on track.
“The programs are very similar,” Minnick said. “But, that being said, there will likely be less detail about what people do in our court because of the nature of mental health and the fact that people will be on different leads.”
Kim Hall, executive director of Mental Health Partners of Hancock County, presented at the first meeting and explained how long people like Minnick and local attorney Jeff McClarnon worked to launch the program.
“I didn’t realize it had been almost 10 years since we started this project together,” Minnick said of her and McClarnon’s work. “It was good to see it come to fruition today.”
Although Davis admits it was frustrating not to launch the program sooner, he was pleased that the management team took the time to work through the issues and ensure that the tribunal, which will also focus on the veterans, was set up in the right way.
The original plan was for the behavioral health court to have dozens of attendees immediately, but the first session opened with just two attendees, one in person and the other watching via Zoom from the jail due to restrictions. COVID. The number of participants is expected to increase rapidly during the next meetings, which are scheduled every two weeks.
“We only have the two participants at the moment, but we have about 20 defendants waiting in the hopper,” Minnick said.
Davis noted that having only two attendees in the first session allowed them to dig a little deeper into each other’s problem and get the program off to a good start.
“It was good to hear them talk about the real reasons that got them in trouble,” Davis said.
The type of offender accepted into the new court program will vary, but all will be Level 4 or lower criminal offenders, officials said. There will be no warrants stating that a person must first go through community corrections, house arrest or probation before being allowed entry.
Prosecutor Brent Eaton said his office was behind the new program and hopes it will be successful in helping people cope with the behavioral issues that landed them in jail.
“We want results that will help the community be safe while dealing with mental health issues,” Eaton said. “If people can learn to deal with their problems this way and get real help, they’re more likely not to have to go to the sheriff at the jail.”
Eaton, who is part of the drug court team, said he would do whatever it takes to support the behavioral health court and noted that when people are dealing with mental health issues and don’t dismiss them, it’s good for public safety.
Davis asked each of the participants in the first meeting to use one word to describe their experience as they completed the first session. One said he was “excited” while the other was “hopeful”. That, Davis said, is a good sign, but noted participants need to do their part to move forward, including taking medications prescribed by health officials who will also be involved in helping program participants.
“Participants are going to have to buy into what we’re doing,” Davis said. “They have to have new ways of life and not go back to their way of life before.”