The Senate gave key approval Thursday to a bill to expand the state’s mental health courts.
The 40-0 vote came after no debate.
Mental health courts divert mentally ill offenders away from the criminal justice system and into treatment programs, much as drug courts do for drug offenders.
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. Two other courts have closed in recent years due to lack of funding.
“I’m overwhelmed,” said Paton Blough, a Greenville mental health advocate who proposed the bill last year. “It’s a bill that I believe will save lives, make the community safer and save taxpayers money.”
Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a Camden Democrat and the bill’s sponsor, asked the Senate afterward to thank Blough for his work on the bill.
Sheheen’s bill doesn’t include funding but he has said he hopes to eventually find money in the budget to assist the courts.
The bill was amended to prohibit participation by violent offenders and to require that victims be notified when offenders enter the program.
The legislation doesn’t 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.
“It is purely optional for the solicitors,” Sen. Shane Massey, an Edgefield Republican, told the Senate.
The programs under the bill are operated by each judicial circuit’s solicitor but allows those already in existence that might be operated by a probate <FZ,1,0,11>judge under a prior court order to continue.
Sheheen has 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.