The City of Chattanooga/Hamilton County Mental Health Court Planning Committee has been meeting over the last year to develop a specialized court in Hamilton County. Set to open in late July, the new Mental Health Court will operate in the General Sessions Court – Criminal Division and Criminal Court of Hamilton County.
The Mental Health Court’s mission is to ensure safer communities through an organized collaborative effort of criminal justice leaders, government, community providers, mental health consumer groups, and nonprofits to provide improved and necessary treatment supports for defendants who have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness.
The Planning Committee has been spearheaded by the office of Public Defender Steve Smith, with the leadership of Assistant Public Defender Anna Protano-Biggs and Sentencing Advocate Samantha Bayles.
On average, 40 percent of the inmates in Hamilton County are on some type of mental health medication. Smith said, “In addition to mental health treatment, those inmates often suffer from other untreated medical conditions that tax the already strained fiscal resources of the jail. Where and how we spend criminal justice dollars is directly related to the safety and security of the public. The purpose of the criminal justice system is to rehabilitate offenders and protect the public. Continuing to apply the same revolving door criminal justice system to mental health consumers who run afoul of minor statutes makes little sense. That’s why mental health courts have sprung up all over the country, and that’s why we’ve created one in Hamilton County.”
The focus of the Court is to target those defendants with serious mental illness and connect them to treatment services in the community while ensuring public safety. Protano-Biggs said, “Mental health courts help the most vulnerable citizens of our community, many of whom have cycled in and out of the justice system, homelessness, emergency rooms, and mental health and substance treatment systems without ever getting the sustained treatment and support they need for recovery.
“The goal is to reduce the likelihood of continued crime by stabilizing these individuals, who cost more than seven times more to jail and who are subject to worsening mental conditions when incarcerated. There’s a strong emphasis on judicial supervision combined with individualized plans of intensive social and treatment services to help these defendants, who would otherwise be released into the community without additional support.”
The organizers are keen to make sure people understand the Court is modeled on national evidence-based practices with a strong focus on local needs. Courts around the nation have seen a significant reduction in recidivism, even as close to us as Nashville. Judge Don W. Poole, who will be leading the Criminal Court Mental Health Court, said, “It is our sincere hope that the Court can make life better for defendants, their families and also those who may be victims of these defendants as well as police, jail personnel and the public. The Court will work closely with accepted and qualified defendants to better ensure compliance with alternative sentences.”
Smith added, “The supervision and structure that a mental health court requires of a client is more onerous than the minimal amount of probation supervision most minor offenders would get from the traditional court system. And make no mistake: being diverted into the Mental Health Court is no ‘get out of jail free’ card; it is not the easy road to take. But for those defendants with the proper insight into their condition, the appropriate amount of frustration at the direction their lives have taken, and who also have the support of the broader community that demands compliance with a treatment regime, success is possible.”
The Court is set to officially open in late July. Protano-Biggs said, “This Court has been over a year in the making, and is truly a community initiative built from the ground up. So many partners have stepped up to provide advice, support, and human resources to make this Court a success. There is collaboration and communication on a level not seen before in this community. We are thrilled to be launching this Court.”
Source: Office of the Public Defender