Kent County board approves funding for study of Mental Health Court

Mental health issues are perhaps one of the largest contributing factors to recidivism. Providing much-needed treatment to those suffering from mental health issues could help offenders recover and stay out of the justice system, while alleviating the strain on the courts and jails. The Kent County Board of Commissioners voted last week to accept a $33,000 Mental Health Court Planning Grant from the State Court Administrative Office (SCAO) be appropriated to the 2017 Special Projects Fund budget.

The State Legislature created the mental health court statute in 2013, enabling trial courts in Michigan to develop and operate mental health courts. A mental health court is a specialized court docket for certain defendants with mental illness that substitutes a problem-solving model for traditional criminal court processing. The SCAO makes funds available annually for planning and implementation of mental health courts.

The 17th Circuit Court, in collaboration with Network180, received the funding to evaluate the need for a mental health court within Kent County and how these services would best be delivered. As required by the grant, staff representing the 17th Circuit Court, local district court, Network180, County Prosecutor, Sheriff’s Office, Public Defender’s Office, mental health services providers and County Administration will participate in the project planning committee. “We simply cannot operate in silos when it comes to the mental health system and the justice system,” said Judge Donald A. Johnston, 17th Circuit Court Chief Judge. “By working together, we hope to enhance public safety and make a difference in the lives of individuals who are trapped in an endless cycle of illness and jail.”

Grant funds will be primarily used to contract with a consultant to serve as the Mental Health Court Planning Coordinator. The coordinator will work with the project planning committee to determine whether implementation of a mental health court in Kent County would reduce recidivism, enhance public safety, and improve outcomes for mentally ill citizens.

“When we treat mental health issues successfully, we will save money that would be spent on court costs and incarceration,” said Jim Saalfeld, Chair of the Board of Commissioners. “Our Board is hopeful that this study will result in development of a program into the future.”

James Hughes, former Regional Administrator for the Michigan Supreme Court, will coordinate the effort on a contractual basis under the direction of the 17th Circuit Court Administrator Andrew Thalhammer.

Kent County has a great opportunity to improve outcomes for persons with serious mental illness who become involved in its criminal justice system. I plan to identify the best practices from other Mental Health Courts in Michigan that could be started here in Grand Rapids,” Hughes said.

The study is expected to be completed by Sept. 30, 2017 to allow development of a proposal for an implementation grant during FY 2018 if recommended by the planning committee and accepted by the court and appropriate funding unit.