A state senator has filed legislation to expand mental health courts in a move praised by advocates for the mentally ill as the first step toward creating a statewide system of alternative justice for those who have found themselves in trouble with the law.
Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a Camden Democrat who unsuccessfully challenged Gov. Nikki Haley last year, told The Greenville News he wants to create a framework that encourages the creation and use of mental health courts so they become more widespread, just as drug courts have become.
“My goal with this legislation is to promote the alternative system of mental health courts across the state so that we don’t clog up our criminal justice system with non-violent offenders who really have a mental health issue more than they do a criminal justice issue,” he said.
The Legislature returns to work today to begin a new two-year session.
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Currently, three mental health courts operate in Greenville, Columbia and Charleston. Grants for their operation ran out years ago but they have continued to operate, officials say. Two other courts have closed in recent years due to lack of funding.
Sheheen’s bill doesn’t include funding but he said he hopes to eventually find money in the budget to assist the courts.
Such programs not only can channel the mentally ill to better treatment options, advocates say, they also can save governments money that would be spent on jail or prison costs.
“We’re pumped about it,” Paton Blough, a Greenville mental health advocate, said of Sheheen’s bill. “There’s a lot of energy nationally for mental health courts. It’s a diversionary program that rehabilitates people and saves taxpayers money.”
Bill Lindsey, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Health South Carolina, said expanding mental health courts “would be a great thing for South Carolina.”
“It gives an opportunity for people with an illness to have some structure, some clinical work and setting some goals to get on with their life,” he said.
“From a fiscal standpoint, we are spending so much money, this would probably affect local jails as anywhere else. If those people have the option of getting out, going home and leaving a productive life, we lose that expense of incarceration, or ER visits, or homelessness or other things.”
Lawmakers said that the state needs to do a better job of addressing mental health problems before inmates land in prison. They were reacting to continued talks between state prison officials and the plaintiffs in a lawsuit representing inmates with serious mental illness.
A circuit judge a year ago issued a scathing 45-page order finding the state Department of Corrections had violated the rights of prisoners with serious mental illness.
The state estimates about 12 percent of the state prison system’s 22,000 inmates suffer some form of mental illness. At $18,299 per inmate in costs, those that are mentally ill cost approximately $48 million a year.
Lindsey said local jails also house a great number of mentally ill, who receive little, if any, treatment while incarcerated.
“Our jails have become the institutions we used to have in state hospitals,” he said. “They’re not getting the treatment, whereas if they go through and complete this program they have access to treatment, they get on with their lives and it’s a win-win situation. It cuts down on the fiscal responsibilities of the counties.”
Some legislators say they want to see more assistance on the front end of the system, such as an increase in school counselors, to help those with mental illness avoid being charged with crimes.
Sen. Tom Alexander, a Walhalla Republican who chairs a finance panel that oversees mental health funding, said he is open to the idea of expanding mental health courts.
“I certainly think that needs to be on the table and be evaluated,” he said. “A lot of times these issues go beyond the judiciary aspect of things and anything we can do on the front end, if it can give us better results, then it needs to be evaluated as part of the solution.”
The legislation does not mandate mental health courts but instead creates a statewide program with the provision that solicitors who accept state dollars for such courts must create them within six months.
Sheheen said while the courts might have differences depending on the location, there would be some uniform rules.
The program would only be for non-violent offenders, for instance, who have been diagnosed with a mental illness, he said. Treatment of some sort would be provided and if the defendants fail to complete the program, their offense would be reinstated.
Defendants using the mental health courts now can be referred by members of the public, law enforcement, lawyers, prosecutors or mental health professionals.
Those charged with criminal domestic violence, lewd act on a minor, DUI, fraudulent checks or any offense in which the victim hasn’t consented are excluded from the program.