August 29, 2021

For many years, courts across the country and Alabama have expanded the use of therapeutic or treatment court programs. These innovative efforts seek to address issues involving underlying substance abuse, mental health, or other conditions which otherwise have jail or prison as the punishment.

Fortunately, mental health courts are also emerging as an alternative track to the costly warehousing and ineffectiveness of incarcerating individuals suffering from mental illness. These reforms recognize that individuals suffering from mental illness are vastly overrepresented in our criminal justice population. In fact, three jails are now the largest mental health providers in America: The Los Angeles County, Cook County Ill. (Chicago) and New York City Rikers Island jails.

Unfortunately, due to Jefferson County’s bankruptcy, our mental health court program was suspended for several years. Then the sole option was for a court to order a forensic evaluation to determine a defendant’s competency and/or mental state at the time of the offense. Such efforts would often come after many months of incarceration and were not always conclusive
If found to be incompetent or legally insane at the time of the offense, these mostly violent offenders would eventually be committed to the supervision of the Alabama Department of Mental Health for years and even decades. Of course, these resources have remained historically stretched, often becoming the subject of federal litigation.
What became frustrating to Judges and others concerned about the issues were the few alternatives available for the mostly non-violent offenders. This population includes individuals suffering from a serious mental illness who did not meet the high legal standard of being defined as incompetent or insane at the time of the offense. These individuals do not require a long-term inpatient commitment, and if provided resources and connected to treatment, they could easily be managed in the community.

Sadly, for these individuals there were generally only two options – continued incarceration or lengthy probation. This population also in many cases suffered from other risk factors such as: substance abuse issues, homelessness, and limited access to treatment and services that made compliance with a standard probation model difficult.

Without question this is a high needs group. Lengthy incarceration is costly and ineffective, but a higher level of case management from mental health professionals and other treatment providers can bridge the gap and provide positive change.

Fortunately, in 2015, the Jefferson County Commission recognized the need and provided funding to our local Community Justice/TASC (Treatment Alternative for Safer Communities) program to restart our mental health court program. This dedicated staff includes a program manager, case managers, and a peer support specialist. This has been complimented by Sheriff Mark Pettway adding mental health support and medical staff to the jail.
Currently, the Jefferson County Jail is using a mental health screening questionnaire to quickly identify individuals at the point of detention. This information is then communicated to jail clinical counselors along with the mental health court team. Instead of someone suffering from a mental illness and waiting weeks or months to be assessed and treated – they are immediately triaged to determine their needs. In many cases, this allows our team to have these individuals quickly assessed and safely released from custody to community treatment providers.

Understandably, it is far less costly and more effective to supervise someone in the community than incarcerate them. Upon supervised release, our court connects them to a fixed mental health provider, who can discuss regular prescription maintenance, therapy, and if necessary, refer to treatment. Finally, instead of waiting until the end of legal proceedings to provide these services as part of a sentence, they are provided these services and other treatments – while the case is pending and through disposition. This provides the Court with valuable insight when fashioning an appropriate sentence and supervisory conditions.

Thereafter, if the defendant is compliant over the course of a supervised period, the District Attorney may agree to either reduce or dismiss the felony matter. Importantly, it is our aim to equip these individuals with insight into their illness along with appreciating the importance of continuing with treatment and services to reduce recidivism.

Notably, in 2020, our court serviced approximately 137 individuals. Of those fully enrolled in mental health court, 94% successfully completed the program, with very few not completing or being charged with a new offense.

I am very fortunate to work with a committed team of professionals and be a part of this effort. I have no doubt that we have appropriately diverted scores of people away from long term commitments to jail and prison. This has proven effective and saved resources, but it has also provided many individuals with dignity and control over their lives.

I am also excited about the future of mental health care in our state. Mental health courts continue to expand across the state. Also, Alabama recently funded efforts to establish Mental Health Crisis Diversion Centers in Huntsville, Montgomery, and Mobile.

This is significant, as this will provide law enforcement with an additional option other than arrest. It will also remove some of the burden that hospital emergency rooms bear to care for people experiencing a mental health crisis. Instead, these crisis centers should achieve better mental health outcomes, and free law enforcement for its serious work.

Our team is hopeful that a crisis center will soon be added in Jefferson County. It would not only make a great addition, but it would complement the existing mental health services provided here and serve as a model for our state. Working together, this facility would significantly contribute to diverting non-violent people with mental illness from jail to treatment.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not recognize some of our other important partners. In addition to the Jefferson County Commission, the Community Justice/TASC program, Sheriff Mark Pettway, District Attorney Danny Carr, Public Defender Adam Danneman, and law enforcement, we are also proud to work with: JBS Mental Health Authority, Jefferson County Health Department, UAB Community Psychiatry, Alabama Department of Mental Health, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and my fellow Jefferson County Judges. This level of coordination is unique and makes for a successful program.

Jefferson County Circuit Judge Stephen Wallace presides over the county’s mental health court.

Judge: Mental health courts divert individuals from prison to treatment, improve public safety