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Chattanooga Mental Health Court Launches in July

From a media release:

THE LAUNCH OF MENTAL HEALTH COURT

New court aims to provide services and break down barriers to recovery for defendants with serious mental illness.

Chattanooga, TN-   The City of Chattanooga/ Hamilton County Mental Health Court Planning Committee has been meeting over the last year to develop a specialized court for our community.  The new Mental Health Court will operate in both the General Sessions Court – Criminal Division and Criminal Court of Hamilton County and is set to open in late July. 

The Mental Health Court’s mission is to ensure safer communities through an organized collaborative effort of criminal justice leaders, government, community providers, mental health consumer groups and nonprofits to provide improved and necessary treatment supports for defendants who have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness.  The Planning Committee has been spearheaded by the office of Public Defender Steve Smith with the leadership and vision of Assistant Public Defender Anna Protano-Biggs and Sentencing Advocate Samantha Bayles.  The Committee has been fortunate to have a strong Advisory Board to ensure an inclusive plan for implementation with input and support from a diverse stakeholder group. 

On average 40% of Hamilton County inmates are on some type of mental health medication.  Public Defender Steve Smith said, “In addition to mental health treatment, those inmates often suffer from other untreated medical conditions that tax the already strained fiscal resources of the jail.  Where and how we spend criminal justice dollars is directly related to the safety and security of the public.  The purpose of the criminal justice system is to rehabilitate offenders and protect the public.  Continuing to apply the same revolving door criminal justice system to mental health consumers who run afoul of minor statutes makes little sense.  That’s why mental health courts have sprung up all over the country.  That is why we have created one here in Hamilton County.”

The focus of the Court is to target those defendants with serious mental illness and connect them to treatment services in the community while ensuring public safety.  Anna Protano-Biggs, who has been leading the project, said, “Mental health courts help the most vulnerable citizens of our community, many of whom have cycled in and out of the justice system, homelessness, emergency rooms, and mental health and substance treatment systems without ever getting the sustained treatment and support they need for recovery.  The goal is to reduce the likelihood of continued crime by stabilizing these individuals, who cost more than 7 times more to jail and who are subject to worsening mental conditions when incarcerated.  There’s a strong emphasis on judicial supervision combined with individualized plans of intensive social and treatment services to help these defendants who would otherwise be released into the community without additional support.  Simply put, it’s a win for everyone in our community.”

Organizers are keen to make sure people understand the Court is modeled on national evidence-based practices with a strong focus on local needs.  Courts around the nation have seen a significant reduction in recidivism, even as close to us as Nashville.  Judge Don W. Poole, who will be leading the Criminal Court Mental Health Court, said, “It is our sincere hope that the Court can make life better for defendants, their families and also those who may be victims of these defendants as well as police, jail personnel and the public.  The Court will work closely with accepted and qualified defendants to better ensure compliance with alternative sentences.”  Steve Smith added, “The supervision and structure that a mental health court requires of a client is more onerous than the minimal amount of probation supervision most minor offenders would get from the traditional court system.  And make no mistake, being diverted into the Mental Health Court is no get out of jail free card.  It is not the easy road to take.  But for those defendants with the proper insight into their condition, the appropriate amount of frustration at the direction their lives have taken, and who also have the support of the broader community that demands compliance with a treatment regime, success is possible.”

The Court is set to officially open in late July.  A Public Forum will be held to unveil the launch of the Mental Health Court on Tuesday, July 7, 2015 from 5:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. at Parkridge Diagnostic Center, 2205 McCallie Avenue. Anna Protano-Biggs said, “This Court has been over a year in the making and is truly a community initiative built from the ground up.  So many partners have stepped up to provide advice, support and human resources to make this Court a success.  There is collaboration and communication on a level not seen before in this community.  We are thrilled to be launching this Court and encourage everyone to come to the Public Forum and find out more.”

The event is open to the public with free parking.  Participation is encouraged and the hope is that mental health consumers, those affected by mental illness, service providers and the wider community will attend. There will be a short presentation followed by a question and answer session. There will be a wide panel of speakers to support the launch, including Judge Poole, Judge Lila Statom, Steve Smith, Anna Protano-Biggs, and representatives of the District Attorney’s Office, Sheriff’s Office, Hamilton County and City of Chattanooga Mayors’ Offices, Tennessee Department of Corrections, Johnson Mental Health Center, Mental Health Cooperative, Health Connect America, Helen Ross McNabb and Cherokee Health Systems.  The event will be moderated by Brennan Francois, CEO of Parkridge Valley Hospital.