THE AUTHOR J.L. Schmidt has been covering Nebraska government and politics since 1979.
A state senator thinks that with 61,000 of Nebraska’s 1.9 million residents facing serious mental health issues, the time is right for a problem-solving court to address the issue.
I couldn’t agree more with Lincoln Sen. Suzanne Geist’s assessment. Timing is everything because getting the matter resolved in a short session during an election year is always a stretch. The $1.4 million price tag also might raise eyebrows, but it’s a bargain.
Geist’s LB1017 is in the hands of the Appropriations Committee. Bills that go there early in the session usually disappear until they are either included in the committee’s budget recommendation or left on the cutting room floor. The waiting is the hardest part. Especially for such an important issue.
It’s helpful that cosponsors Sens. Kate Bolz of Lincoln and Myron Dorn of Adams are members of that committee. It’s helpful that people in the judicial system can point out the necessity and the cost savings of such a measure. It’s helpful that Nebraska has a history with successful problem-solving courts for drug offenses and for veterans who get into trouble.
In general, mental health courts aim to: improve public safety by reducing recidivism; improve the quality of life for people with mental illness and increase their participation in effective treatment; reduce court and corrections-related costs.
Lancaster County Public Defender Joe Nigro says the criminal justice system is ill equipped to deal with mental health issues. He says it costs $5,000 to $7,000 to pay for somebody going through problem solving court while prison is about $35,000 a year.
Mental health courts are specialized, treatment-oriented, problem-solving courts that divert mentally ill offenders away from the criminal justice system and into court-mandated, community-based treatment programs. Nigro and other attorneys have seen such offenders fall through the cracks, often winding up in a prison system that is not equipped to rehabilitate them.
There are some 250 mental health problem-solving courts in the United States. A Florida judge says many arrests are averted by a crisis intervention team of police who refer people to treatment before they’re booked. He says the recidivism rate for mentally ill offenders who complete the mental health program is about 20 percent versus the norm of 72 percent.
Geist says one of the goals of her bill is to keep individuals who are suffering from severe mental illness out of our correctional system and put them back into society after treatment. She envisions a program that is intensive, heavy on treatment and education.
She envisions a pilot program for the mental health courts in the state’s three most populous counties, Douglas, Sarpy and Lancaster.
The state already has a director of problem-solving courts, Adam Jorgensen. He says the drug courts in place are a much more effective way to address drug crime in a community. Although he says some still are wary of supervised release instead of incarceration, that mindset is changing.
People don’t have a really good grasp of what individuals have to go through to successfully complete a problem-solving court. He says requirements include treatment, programming, chemical tests and appearing in front of a judge.
Those judges, he says, recognize problem-solving courts are more cost-effective and have better long-term outcomes. Judges and other court staff go through training in partnership with national educational institutions before starting their own programs. Standards from the Nebraska Supreme Court ensure problem-solving courts are consistent statewide.
A Nebraska Supreme Court committee is working on standards for mental health and family dependency courts. A DUI task force currently is working on problem-solving courts and a statewide committee is developing a strategic problem-solving court plan through 2025.
As with a lot of other developments in the criminal justice system, it’s about time!