EARLY INTERVENTION: Judge aims to create court program to focus on mental health


HANCOCK COUNTY — A recent domestic violence case making its way through Hancock County Superior Court 1 shined a spotlight on a silent denominator surrounding some criminal behavior.

The defendant, officials learned during a presentence investigation, clearly had mental health issues he was addressing through drug use.

Judge D.J. Davis was overseeing the case and wanted to know more about the person’s mental health problems so he could craft a sentence that would deal with the underlying issues and not gloss over the root of the defendant’s problems.

While the prosecutor wanted the defendant to go to prison for most of a four-year sentence, Davis wanted to make sure the sentence would include professional behavioral health treatment. That’s something that should have been started the moment the defendant was arrested and during the many months he was awaiting trial, Davis noted.

In the end, Davis sentenced the man to 18 months in prison, 18 months of home detention and a year of probation, with the second part of the sentencing calling for programming that deals with mental health issues.

Such programming is about to get more emphasis. County officials are in the midst of creating a new behavioral and mental health court that will also provide a treatment protocol program designed specifically for veterans.

Problem-solving courts provide a highly structured intervention intended to address the core reasons why people become involved in the justice system. Hancock County already has one problem-solving court that deals with defendants with addiction issues.

Davis is spearheading the new problem-solving court, which he will oversee in Superior Court 1. In addition to dealing with people who have behavioral and mental health issues, the court will also work with local veterans.

Davis promised he would work to implement such a program when he ran for the judge’s seat last year.

Davis has already reached out to officials with Indiana Justice Services, filing a letter of intent to start the new court. He must now submit policy and procedural plans along with guidelines to the state by April 15. The hope is to have the court up and running as early as July 1, but no later than Sept. 1.

Davis is putting together a mental health protocol team that includes Kevin Minnick, a behavior health specialist in the county’s probation department.

The two did a deep dive looking into other behavioral and mental health courts already operating in the state to get a better understanding of how they work and how the program in Superior Court 1 should be designed.

Judge Jonathan Cleary of Dearborn County Superior Court 1 is the chair for the Problem Solving Courts Committee for the Indiana Supreme Court. He is advising Davis on the Hancock County initiative.

Cleary has overseen a Drug Court and a Veterans Treatment Court in his county for the past 13 years and said there is more immediate accountability than in the normal courtroom process.

“We call it swift and certain consequences, unlike in traditional court where things can get backlogged,” Cleary said. “We’re not waiting six months to respond to bad behavior.”

The problem-solving court programs include rewarding good behavior and immediately responding to bad behavior.

“I come from a prosecutor’s background, so at first I was skeptical,” Cleary said. “I had to see it work before I believed, and I can tell you, they do work and the reason is because it’s a team approach.”

The key to the new court program working locally, Davis said, is to be as far-reaching as possible. The county’s letter of intent says officials are planning to help certain high-risk felony and misdemeanor offenders with a history of behavioral or mental health issues.

Unlike Hancock County Drug Court, overseen by Judge Scott Sirk in Circuit Court — which has specific program steps and guidelines for who can enter the program — Behavioral Court will be different for each person based on individual plans. Plus, Davis will not limit the types of offenders who might need mental health assistance. Drug Court, by contrast, normally does not allow people who’ve been involved with person-on-person crimes.

“It doesn’t mean we’re just going to let anyone who has ever done anything come in, but the intent there is just like in some domestic violence cases that deal with mental health issues as the cause,” Davis said.

Sirk, who has seen how successful a problem-solving court program can be, noted a behavioral and mental health court is long overdue in the county and will hopefully address underlying issues associated with some criminal behavior.

“I do think it’s going to be a great program and will help a lot of people in the county,” Sirk said.

The new program will need a coordinator and case manager, which could be funded through grants if the county is unable to fund the coordinator position.

County Commissioner Marc Huber said he supports the idea of more mental health services in the county and that officials need to take a hard look at allocating funds for such a program.

“Anywhere we can get some help with the mental health and addiction issues, we need to do that,” Huber said. “It’s painful because these types of things are expensive, and it takes time and a lot of effort and money to get things going… In a year or two or three we could see things start to pay off.”

Huber and other county leaders are supposed to meet with Davis and hear more about the new court program.

Davis anticipates the court will deal mostly with Level 4 felony offenders and lower. While the coordinator and other team members, including jail officials, will evaluate candidates, Davis can make a final call on a defendant joining the program.

Once the court is created, the plan is to have a behavioral health diversion program that works with Level 6 felony and misdemeanor defendants who could have a conviction expunged once the program is completed.

They also want to have an on-call team ready to start working with people as soon as a behavioral issue causes trouble.

“It would be great to have a team to see if things can be handled and avoid an arrest if it’s a mental health issue,” Davis said.

A part of the new court program will be for veterans, who have told Davis they are pleased to hear there will be a place where they can seek help.

“The thing is most people with mental health issues hide,” Davis said. “You may not be wanting to get in trouble, but they’re also not wanting to deal with the problem.”

Kim Hall, director of Mental Health Partners of Hancock County, is part of the new team who will support the new court. She agrees there is a need for the program.

“We’ve been working on getting this into the courts for several years, so yes, it’s great that it is finally happening,” Hall said.

There are too many people with underlying mental issues who commit crimes but who may not understand the driving factor behind their behavior, she said.

“You can’t put those kind of people in jail,” Hall said. “We’ve got too many veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder who need to be treated differently.”

Longtime attorney Jeff McClarnon has been trying to get a mental health court in the county for nearly a decade, he said. He’s worked with Hall, Sheriff Brad Burkhart and former Judge Marie Castetter as a team to spearhead the project and was glad to see Davis see it through.

“For so long I would see people being sent to jail who should not be due to mental health issues and knew we needed to do something,” McClarnon said.

Officials are hoping that the new jail now under construction will have a specially designated area for inmates with behavioral and mental health issues. That’s something Burkhart has talked about doing.

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Indiana has about 130 problem-solving courts, which are offshoots of regular county courts and are overseen by local judges. The concept took hold in the 1990s as a way to help people whose specific needs and problems could not be adequately addressed in traditional courts. Hancock County already has one such program: Drug Court, which is overseen by Circuit Court Judge Scott Sirk. Problem-solving courts seek to promote outcomes that will benefit not only the defendant, but the victim and society as well. Results from studies show that these types of courts are having a positive impact on defendants and victims. In some cases, they provide cost-savings for jails and prisons.

Source: Indiana Office of Court Services