County to start mental health court

Published 10:56 am Thursday, June 24, 2010

Through Shelby County’s Drug Court, many drug offenders are allowed to work their way back into society, rather than sitting in a jail cell. For many of those people, Drug Court is their last lifeline.

Shelby County Probate Judge Jim Fuhrmeister is hoping he can help make the same impact on the lives of those with mental issues.

Fuhrmeister is one of the founders of the Shelby County Mental Health Court, which aims to get such people the help they need to contribute to society again.

“The goal is to take someone, who is suffering from a diagnosed mental health disorder and finds themselves in jail, and get them back into the community with supervision,” Fuhrmeister said.

Currently, people with mental issues in the criminal system simply serve their sentences without getting treatment for their mental issues. Many times, such people aren’t even officially diagnosed.

“So they’re charged with a crime, and they’re put in jail, at least for a while. They bond or they don’t, and they stay in jail,” Fuhrmeister said. “In either situation, they don’t get treatment for their mental illness. So what happens is recidivism. It just turns, basically, into a revolving door.”

He said the Mental Health Court would provide such people structure and appropriate treatment, which can lead to a turnaround in their lives.

Circuit Judge Hub Harrington will preside over the court, which is expected to begin by the end of the summer.

Harrington brought the idea of a mental health court to Fuhrmeister soon after Fuhrmeister took over as probate judge.

However, the idea didn’t really gain traction until Fuhrmeister participated in Leadership Shelby County. His small group thought the mental health court idea would be an excellent project to take on.

“I truly believe that the people in this group have put a plan in place that’s going to absolutely change lives,” Fuhrmeister said.

The Mental Health Court will function by taking client recommendations from Shelby County Jail officials, judges and others in the legal system. Those recommendations will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis by the district attorney, the judge and a case manager to decide which prisoners to take on as clients.

Only offenders who are charged with violations, misdemeanors or Class B or C felony charges will be considered. Those who have committed violent crimes won’t be eligible.

Clients will be required to go through drug screening to make sure they’re taking the drugs they should be taking without self-medicating with other drugs. Clients will also be required to go through whatever counseling or therapy is appropriate for their mental health issue, while working with a case manager.

Fuhrmeister said he already knows of at least 40 individuals in the system who might be good candidates.

Court officials secured funding of $100,000 from the Shelby County Community Health Foundation to pay for the mental health court’s first year.

Mental Health Court officials have already hired a case manager, Ira Blanchard, who has years of experience as a mental health liaison for probate court.

“We got the guy with all this experience, who knows all these people. There won’t be a learning curve,” Fuhrmeister said. “The case manager will help put people in touch with community resources, such as housing. He can put them where they need to be to be part of the community.”

Fuhrmeister said as probate judge, he deals with involuntary commitments, so he knows the toll mental illness can take on families.

“I see the impact this has on a person and the family. (The Mental Health Court) won’t just help the person, it’ll help the family,” he said. “I think this will, in some way, help those families and relieve some of the pressure on them.”