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Special Court Helping Those With Mental Illness

Special Court Helping Those With Mental Illness

Posted - Sep. 8, 2004 at 4:55 p.m.



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Kim Johnson reporting In a quiet corner of the Matheson Courthouse, a unique courtroom deals with a sad and pervasive problem: Hundreds of people who are in the justice system basically because they suffer from a mental illness.

Mental Health Court has brought help, and hope, to people who might otherwise have been forgotten.

The court was organized in Salt Lake County in 2001. It aims to close a costly revolving door that swings between the streets and jail for mentally ill offenders.

Joe Burt is passionate about his art.

Joe Burt: "It”s my drive to be part of this world. It's my drive to connect.

He says the inspiration for this new work is coming from a dream he had four years ago. When its finished Joe says he'll give it away. He gave one his very best paintings to his case worker. It hangs in the Salt Lake County Criminal Justice Services office. Joe says this work was inspired by his own mental illness: bi-polar disorder.

Joe Burt: "I've been on my medications for a couple of weeks now and if you talked to me when I’m in my creative zone I don't think you'd even think you're talking to the same person. They usually lock me up when I’m that person."

Jail, psychiatric hospitals, the streets. Joe has lived them all. But life is better these days. He has a place to live. He's taking medications, checking in with probation and social workers, and attending classes like this one to learn to manage his illness. and every Monday at three, he reports his progress before Judge William Bohling.

Joe is one of approximately 75 people voluntarily choosing to participate in Salt Lake County's mental health court, over jail..

It's a collaborative effort between Judge Bohling, prosecutors, public defenders, law enforcement officers and mental health providers. They all work together to provide medication, intense supervision and education for mentally ill offenders.

Depending on the crime, participants can be in mental health court for one to three years.

Judge William Bohling, Mental Health Court: "You'll have to take your medication. You have to come to court every week and tell us how you're doing. You have to stay away from alcohol and drugs. And if you're willing to do that you're not going to be in jail, and at the end of your sentence we will dismiss the charges."

Social workers say mental health court is the most innovative program for mentally ill offenders yet.

Linda Timmins, Case worker: "We have shown that if we can help people get a safe to live and stay on their meds long enough to get stable, that it'll work, we can keep them out of jail."

Statistics show since mental health court began, mentally ill offenders have spent 534 fewer days in jail. That's a 47 percent reduction, saving nearly 38-thousand taxpayer dollars. Besides saving money, advocates say the program is restoring hope for people like Joe Urry.

Joe Urry, Mental Health Ct. Participant: "I don't know where I’d be without mental health court because I was a loose canon out there, and even though I was facing some jail time I would have just done my jail time and got back out and gotten back into my same routine, because I was untreated."

Joe Burt and Joe Urry both say part of the program's success, is the fact that all parties involved in mental health court take a genuine human interest in the well-being of their clients.

I'll show you some emotional moments in the courthouse, tomorrow night.

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