York County starts mental health court to help non-violent criminal offenders
York County started a mental health court Friday as an alternative way of dealing with non-violent criminal offenders who have mental illness. Offenders must plead guilty with the opportunity to get their records eventually wiped clean if they complete three years of counseling and court monitoring, prosecutors said.
The court was created to address the problem of people with mental illness who commit crimes because of a problem with staying on medications or other problems, said Kevin Brackett, 16th Circuit solicitor. Offenders will be treated at Catawba Community Mental Health Center as part of a three-year court-treatment plan, he said.
"This is an effort to break the cycle for this segment of our population that offends, and re-offends," Brackett said.
Taxpayers will not have to foot the bill for jail stays for these offenders that can last months, the solicitor said.
Only people age 18 and older arrested for non-violent crimes, with no violent criminal history, are eligible. The person must be mentally competent under the law and have been diagnosed with a mental illness that is already being treated, Brackett said.
"The people who will be part of this program need mental health treatment to keep them from coming back to the justice system," Brackett said. "For them, jail is not the answer for treatment."
The creation of the court comes after a 2015 South Carolina law that allows mental health courts for non-violent offenders. In May, S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Beatty issued a formal order creating the York County court.
Beatty wrote "qualified mentally ill defendants in York County would benefit ... without compromising the safety of the public."
Three people who pleaded guilty Friday had arrests for car break-ins, illegal prescription drug possession and a non-violent burglary. All three and their lawyers said in court the defendants were being treated by medical professionals for their illnesses.
The Herald is not naming the defendants in mental health court.
The York County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness has endorsed the court, saying diverting people with mental illness from the penal system is a positive step.
York County Probate Judge Carolyn Rogers and York County Master-in-Equity Judge Jack Kimball have agreed to be the judges for the mental health court.
Rogers, who regularly handles involuntary commitments to medical facilities and institutions for severe mental health crises in her probate court, praised the creation of the new mental health court for criminal offenders as an alternative to incarceration while offering an avenue to professional treatment.
The new court was also praised by the three defense lawyers on Friday whose clients now have a chance at clean records and treatment rather than felony convictions on the clients' records for the rest of their lives.
All participants plead guilty and accept a probation sentence. That conviction is dismissed and the case expunged if the person successfully completes the program. A failure means the person would have to have the sentence reconsidered by a judge, testimony showed Friday.
Andrew Dys: 803-329-4065, @AndrewDysHerald
Herald reporter Amanda Harris contributed.