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New Mental Health Court aims to break the cycle

The Herald - 9/8/2023

Sep. 7—MERCER — Common Pleas President Judge Daniel P. Wallace brought a third specialty court into existence in Mercer County in August.

Mental Health Court is the new one. The court already has a participant, and three more are being considered.

The other two courts are Veterans Court, run by Wallace, which has been a part of the county court system for about eight years. The other court is Drug Treatment Court, and is spearheaded by Judge Ronald D. Amrhein Jr.

Wallace is also at the helm of the Mental Health Court.

"Because we have a population of serious mentally ill people out there, that justifies the need for a mental health court," Wallace said. "Every time I have sentence court, there is someone there that I think to myself, 'This person could really be in Mental Health Court.'"

Wallace started thinking about forming a Mental Health Court in February when he attended a judicial conference in Pittsburgh. There was a seminar about mental health courts.

"I never thought that we had the population to support a mental health court until I went to that seminar," Wallace said.

To qualify for Mental Health Court, the person must be in the criminal justice system and already sentenced. The incentive of the program is to ultimately take time off a probation sentence and reintegrate them into society by breaking the cycle of recidivism.

Wallace said the typical Mental Health Court candidate is in jail with criminal charges, maybe convicted and has been sentenced. They have to be eligible for the Community Integration Project to be eligible for Mental Health Court.

Wallace said Mental Health Court could be for those that find themselves in trouble time and time again due to their mental illness.

"I think it's going to give them an opportunity to stabilize and manage their mental illness while they're under supervision," Wallace said. "And learn how to use their coping skills, connect with resources so they're not winding up back in jail and we're breaking that cycle."

Mental Health Court is designed to be two years long.

"But we realize that people with serious mental illnesses are going to mess up, they're going to make mistakes and we're not about kicking them out and helping them with supervision," Wallace said. "We make sure they take their medication."

The Mental Health Court team is made up of Wallace, representatives from the Mercer County Behavioral Health Commission, the Intermediate Punishment Program, the public defender's office and the district attorney's office, which will make the final determination if a candidate qualifies for the program.

The Community Integration Project is headed by Miranda Basham, case management supervisor with the Mercer County Behavioral Health Commission.

Being a part of the project and having been diagnosed with a serious mental illness are the first indicators that a person should be part of Mental Health Court.

"We try to link them to support while they're still in jail, preparing for release," Basham said. "Upon release, we can help them connect to healthy support services to reduce the risk of reincarceration."

The Mental Health Court team meets every other week and holds court the same day. There is no limit to the number of people allowed to be part of the program at a time unless existing resources are taxed.

Wallace said they might try for grants in the future for further educational opportunities for the court such as trauma therapy.

"I realize this isn't going to be easy," Wallace said. "But the longer I'm a judge, the more I realize, we do a very poor job helping the mentally ill."

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