Ithaca creates court focused on mental health

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It has become a common practice these days in the court system to create a court that can focus on one thing, specializing in a particular area without getting caught up a hundred different things. The City of Ithaca already uses this approach with a specialized drug court. Now, that focus and success are being aimed at addressing mental health as it pertains to the revolving door of those who enter the county jail.


The Ithaca Wellness and Recovery Court only just started last month after it found a coordinator, Michelle Preshur. Now, only a month in, the court already has six participants. It is aimed to help people with serious mental health issues that are the main factor in their chronic re-arrests and incarceration.
The Wellness and Recovery Court has a committee that meets regularly to discuss the viability of a potential participant and the progress of current participants. The committee consists of a large team of people from the local court system including City Judge Scott Miller and County District Attorney Matt Van Houten, as well as mental health advisors like County Mental Health Commissioner Frank Kruppa, and many others. The collaboration between all sides is what makes the court different, and successful. Ithaca is not the first to create a court like the Wellness and Recovery Court, and aspects of it are modeled after similar courts, but this area does make Ithaca’s court unique.


“This community, especially, is very big on alternatives to incarceration, chopping down those barriers, problem-solving, being very creative with ways that we can sustain people in the community,” Preshur said.


Before taking the job as coordinator, Preshur worked in probation for several years, getting an up close and personal look of the factors that made it hard for her parolees to get the help they needed to stay out of jail. She has a bachelors degree in Human Services and a masters degree in Crisis and Trauma Counseling. She knows what trauma can do to a person and how it can exacerbate an already tough situation.


When someone is referred to the Wellness and Recovery Court as a possible participant, Preshur does an assessment to find out their demographics, use or history of use and patient stays, if they have a current diagnosis, if they are currently in treatment, their trauma history, family history, legal and incarceration history, and if they have a support system. From there, the committee will look at the assessment and decide if the person would be a good candidate for Wellness and Recovery Court. Unlike other programs, having a history of drug use and a record will not automatically disqualify someone. In fact, that is the population that the court is aiming for; the people who don’t fit in other programs but still need some help.


“This population is marginalized,” Preshur said. “We have all of these programs for people who are substance users, or domestic violence, or what have you. This court tends to take, I think, more of a holistic approach to all of that. We’re not going to say ‘You have a substance use disorder so you have to do Drug Court, too.’ We’re going to try and work within our partnerships and the members of our team to handle all of that at once.”


Wellness and Recovery Court meets on the first and third Monday of each month. Fostering consistency and structure is an important part of the program. At the end of every meeting with Judge Miller, he asks the participants what the court and Preshur can help them with. Are they having trouble with their housing, with transportation, with their medication? What is it that they need to help them continue the program successfully?


“A key component of any mental health court is the relationship the participants have with the court,” Miller said. “If you put these individuals with serious mental health issues in the regular court sessions, they have a different relationship with the judge. It’s not narrowly focused on what the real issue is.”


The creation of the court came from lobbying efforts from the community. Community members, and staff within the court system kept asking when a court for people with mental health issues could be created.


The goals of the court, as laid out in the manual created by the team, include: improving access to recovery-focused mental health services, encourage the utilization of the mental health system, provide integrated treatment services, improve public safety, increase ancillary services for individuals living with mental illness, collaborate with all criminal justice stakeholders and first responders to ensure that the program is made available to potential participants, and increase family involvement. Presumptively eligible charges for participants are non-violent misdemeanors, non-criminal violations or lower level non-violent felony offenses, and probation violations for the same. Registered sex offenders and those charged under a violent statute, or with domestic violence or drug sales, are not eligible.


Some participants come in after being offered a contract to agree to participate in the program in order to dismiss a charge or replaced with a non-criminal ticket. Some come in as a requirement of their parole.


While the team is excited to be able to direct people who need them to the services that can help them, it has not escaped Judge Miller’s notice that people who need mental health services shouldn’t be getting them from the courts.


“It’s really sad that in 2019 in the United States that you are talking to a judge about this issue; mental health, getting treatment,” said Miller. “Often, courts and the criminal justice system, it’s like the last receptacle of all of our failed public policies.”


Providing people with the health care, education, and job opportunities they need before entering the criminal justice system should be the focus, Miller argues.


For now, the court is only in the City of Ithaca, but the plan is to eventually expand it to the entire county.

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