Kent County launches specialty court to handle mentally ill defendants

Mental Health Court

GRAND RAPIDS, MICH. -  Kent County in January will launch a new program designed to help mentally ill people arrested for certain felony offenses.

The newly-minted mental health court targets defendants who need treatment, not incarceration, Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker said.

“We’re really excited about the potential for seeing what we can do for mental health patients,’’ Becker said. “It’s a program to keep them out of the jails or prison for their offenses and get them into treatment.’’

Kent County Circuit Court Judge Joseph Rossi will handle the specialized docket for felony offenders. Once up and running, it’s anticipated the court will have a caseload of about four dozen defendants.

The Kent County Board of Commissioners last month accepted a $193,000 grant to help fund the program, which has been in the works for about a year.

Michigan lawmakers in 2013 created the state’s mental health court statute as a way to accommodate mentally ill defendants in a non-traditional way.

“This isn’t going to be for rape, homicide, the very serious offenses,’’ Becker said. “It’s for lower level felony cases involving people that have recognized mental health issues. It gives us another tool so they’re not just going to jail.’’

Nearly three dozen mental health courts are up and running statewide. The Kent County program is a collaborative effort involving several agencies, including Network 180, Kent County Circuit Court, the Kent County Sheriff’s Department and the Michigan Department of Corrections.

Becker says the criminal justice system has seen a steady influx of mentally ill defendants over the last two decades. It follows a 1997 decision by then Gov. John Engler to close state mental health hospitals.

“There’s no place for them to go,’’ Becker said. “Who’s bearing the brunt of it?  The criminal justice system.’’

Participants will be monitored closely to make sure they are taking prescribed medications and attending counseling appointments, Becker said.

“It’s a high monitoring of these individuals,’' he said. “Are you on your meds? Are you doing what you’re supposed to do? It’s a system of accountability.’’

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