The public is invited to attend a public forum on Criminal Justice and Mental Health: “A Mental Health Court for Hamilton County”, to be held next Monday from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center. The event is free and open to the public. Free parking is available on the streets or behind the Center. Community participation is encouraged and time will be allotted for audience questions and comments.
The Public Forum is sponsored by the Planning Committee of the City/County Mental Health Court Feasibility Study. The committee is exploring the development of a Mental Health Court for Hamilton County. It is a wide collaborative community effort with 36 individuals from the criminal justice system, government, mental health system and non-profits sitting on the Planning Committee. The initiative is being spearheaded by the office of Public Defender Ardena Garth with strong judicial support from General Sessions Court Judge Christie Mahn Sell and Criminal Court Judges Don W. Poole and Barry Steelman.
Officials in the public defender's office said, "Mental health courts are being developed throughout Tennessee and the nation in response to the high proportion of people with mental illnesses in the criminal justice system. Here in Hamilton County over a third of all inmates are receiving psychotropic medication. With the decrease in psychiatric beds since the 1960s, there are now three times more seriously mentally ill persons in jails and prisons than hospitals. Statistics show defendants who are mental health consumers stay in custody up to 8 times longer than non-consumers."
Assistant Public Defender Anna Protano-Biggs, who has been leading the Planning Committee, said, “When a person has been arrested 15 times, most people probably assume that person is a hardened criminal. This isn’t necessarily so. 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. This compassionate approach both helps individuals and families, and saves resources with fewer arrests and less incarceration time. It makes fiscal sense for taxpayers.”
She said a mental health court in Hamilton County would focus on those defendants with serious mental illness that may have played a role in the alleged commission of the crime. There would be a strong emphasis on judicial supervision combined with individualized plans of intensive social and treatment services to help defendants who would otherwise be released into the community without additional support. It would be a voluntary program.
Judge Christie Sell said, “A mental health court in Hamilton County will significantly reduce costs and improve public safety by connecting mentally ill defendants with community resources. The goal is to reduce the likelihood of continued crime by stabilizing these individuals, who cost more than 7 times more to jail and who are subject to worsening mental conditions when incarcerated. It's a win/win for our community and we are very excited about everyone's commitment to this advancement for Hamilton County.”
The Public Forum will be the first of several forums designed to hear personal stories and ideas from the community about the need for a mental health court. The hope is that mental health consumers, those affected by mental illness, service providers and the wider community will attend the Public Forum. There will be a short presentation followed by a question and answer session. Panel speakers will include Judge Sell, Judge Poole, Anna Protano-Biggs, G.A. Bennett from the Sheriff’s office and Donna Maddox from Johnson Mental Health. The moderators will be Boyd Patterson from the District Attorney’s office and Samantha Bayles from the Public Defender’s office.
Public Defender Ardena Garth stated, “We are very happy to have so many partners committed to this initiative and to building strong community collaborations. The best mental health court will be one that is specific to Hamilton County and addresses local community needs. We encourage everyone to come to the Public Forum and get involved.”