People with mental illness shouldn’t be sent to jail, where they are likely to receive little or no help in dealing with their problems. York County law officials have a better solution.
At last week’s regular York County Council meeting, Sheriff Kevin Tolson, 16th Circuit solicitor Kevin Brackett and county probate judge Carolyn Rogers proposed establishing a mental health court to deal with offenders who are caught in a vicious cycle of committing crimes and ending up behind bars time and time again. The mental health court – similar to ones in Charleston, Columbia and Greenville – would constitute a new branch of the York County court system.
Bracket explained that many offenders with mental problems often are held in custody while officials decide whether they are competent to stand trial. Others are set free but often commit new offenses because they are unsupervised and unable to keep up with the medication schedules.
And some simply sit in prison because their families or friends are unwilling to help or don’t have the resources to do so.
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“A mental health court seeks to break that cycle,” Brackett said. “It diverts people from court to a structured environment.”
Under the proposal outlined to county council members, the mental health court would operate in a space at the Moss Justice Center in York. Offenders identified as mentally ill would attend periodic sessions with the presiding judge and other mental health professionals, who would offer advice on dealing with mental illness and avoiding legal conflicts.
Tolson noted that giving these people help and support is less costly than paying $63 a day for them to sit in jail. It also is the more humane approach.
Offenders would be monitored around the clock and kept on a schedule with their medications. That would help prevent them from committing new crimes and keep them out of the detention center.
Defendents who commit violent crimes such as murder or rape would not be eligible for the mental health court. But those who commit less serious crimes such as minor assault, disorderly behavior of making threats could qualify for the services.
Brackett estimates it would cost about $140,000 a year to operate a mental health court in York County. The S.C. Department of Mental Health has pledged an annual contribution of $60,000, and other funding sources might be available.
Mentally ill people do not belong behind bars, mingling with the general prison population. The four inmates strangled to death this month at the maximum security Kirkland Correctional Institution in Columbia had served time in a unit there designed to treat people with mental health problems. A clinical counselor who worked with mentally ill prisoners at Kirkland has sued the agency, saying it failed to live up to a state judge’s order to improve treatment there.
Unfortunately, mentally ill inmates often are sent to prison with little chance of receiving adequate medical and psychological attention. South Carolina and a number of other states allow juries to render a so-called “compromise verdict” in which defendants can be found guilty but mentally ill.
The verdict can be used when jurors might be reluctant to find a defendant innocent because of insanity but also are hesitant about choosing a guilty verdict for someone who suffers from mental illness. Unfortunately, while this might soothe the consciences of jurors, mentally ill defendants often still get harsh sentences under this verdict.
In the case of the county mentally ill court, offenders would be dealing directly with a judge and mental health experts. And the goal would be to keep them out of jail, prevent them from committing new crimes and keep local law enforcement officers from having to deal with them, sometimes in dangerous confrontations.
We think this is both a sensible and compassionate approach to an unfortunately common problem. We hope the county council will give its support.