Texas county court to begin hearing mental health cases

The county joins a national trend of sending nonviolent offenders with serious mental illnesses to treatment rather than prison

By Andrew Kragie
Houston Chronicle

MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Texas — As a new mental health court gears up to start hearing cases next month, Montgomery County is poised to become the latest Texas locality to join a national trend of sending nonviolent offenders with serious mental illnesses to treatment rather than prison.

Across the country, many participants in mental health courts have an addiction in addition to a mental illness, and some are homeless as well. 

County Court-at-Law Judge Mary Ann Turner, who will be supervising the program.
County Court-at-Law Judge Mary Ann Turner, who will be supervising the program. (Photo Courtesy of Montgomery County courts)

These courts help address a massive national problem: one in five people in local jails has a recent history of mental illness, according to a 2006 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, and mentally ill inmates with prior convictions were more likely to end up in jail again.

The phenomenon is so common that jailers call them "frequent fliers" — nonviolent offenders who are in and out of police custody, often homeless and living with addiction when outside jail.

Mental health courts began in Florida in 1997 and have slowly spread across the country. Modeled after drug courts, they seek to provide treatment instead of, or sometimes in addition to, punishment. According to the Council of State Governments, there are now more than 300 across the country.

Montgomery County will be the eighth of Texas' 254 counties to start a mental health court, according to a list maintained by the governor's office. The state has nearly 200 specialty courts in total; they focus on everything from veterans to drugs and DWI to prostitution. Experts say these courts cut incarceration costs, improve individual outcomes and reduce recidivism.

Harris County established its first mental health court in 2009 with support from then-District Attorney Pat Lykos.

"I think this is a major initiative," Lykos said at the time. "The criminal justice system is the last institution available to deal with these individuals... This is a moral issue. It's a dollars-and-cents issue."

The Fort Bend County public defender's office began with a focus on mental health in 2010 and now includes specialized attorneys, social workers and case managers. The county also operates felony and misdemeanor mental-health courts.

A Chronicle series has been focusing on the challenges that the parents of a 22-year-old bipolar man in Fort Bend have faced in getting treatment for their son as he has cycled through the criminal justice system, most recently for threatening law enforcement officers by phone last year. Galveston County has a specialized unit in its community supervision program for people on parole and probation, and the county is seeking state funding for a mental health court.

Montgomery County made its first move toward a mental health court in 2012 when it created a program that paired mentally ill defendants with a specialized attorney and caseworker. That team aimed to connect defendants with counseling, housing and other services to keep them out of jail. 

This spring, Montgomery County commissioners authorized the new Mental Health Treatment Court, which allows mentally ill defendants accused of nonviolent crimes to seek treatment rather than punishment. The voluntary program lasts 12 to 24 months and includes psychiatric treatment, medical care, public benefits and services like housing and job placement. 

Defendants must be found legally competent before choosing to enter the program.

Montgomery County prosecutors will dismiss minor charges if defendants complete the program's requirements, which include regular court appearances before one of the two judges supervising the program, County Court-at-Law Judge Mary Ann Turner and state District Court Judge Lisa Michalk.

"We're hoping that we can maybe turn the tide and get them out of the criminal justice system," Michalk said, adding that it benefits both the defendant and the public. The county's savings could be considerable.

Jailing one person costs the county about $70 a day, the judge said, adding that the program has support from local leaders such as County Judge Craig Doyal, Precinct 1 Commissioner Mike Meador and the county's district attorney, sheriff and probation director.

Montgomery County currently pays the salaries for Gloria Kessler, the mental health court services director for the county, as well the assigned prosecutor and the other drug court employees. However, Kessler said the county will seek state funding early next year.

Drug courts have been shown to improve outcomes, said Dr. Renee Binder, a California psychiatrist who recently served as president of the American Psychiatric Association, "It reduces the number of subsequent jail days, and it reduces the instances of violence."

The APA advocates the "decriminalization of mental health," Binder said. "We do have a problem in the U.S. where people with mental illnesses are being sent to jails and prisons rather than being given medical and psychiatric treatment."

Kessler was hired in February to lead the county's mental health court services, which includes the specialty court. A licensed counselor who also teaches social services at Lone Star College, Kessler will oversee two case managers.

The two judges will run a "multidisciplinary team" that includes a special prosecutor from the district attorney's office, a trained probation officer, and Kessler's team of counselors and case managers.

Most participants will enter the mental health court after being referred by defense attorneys. 

Defendants are eligible if they are accused of misdemeanors or nonviolent felonies and have a serious mental illness like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or a major depressive disorder. The court might also accept some people with PTSD, severe anxiety or intellectual disabilities, Kessler said.

Prosecutors will decide if individuals fit the criteria, including whether mental illness caused the crime for which defendants are charged or was connected to it.

If a defendant agrees to enter the program, he or she will be represented at no cost by one of two defense attorneys, Kathryn Liptrap and Jarrod Walker, who are volunteering their time until funding is found.

The defendants become clients once they enter the program, Kessler said. They will leave jail on probation or bond supervision. The program will start with a treatment plan that may include substance abuse treatment, psychiatric counseling and medications. For indigent participants, the counseling will be free through the Tri-County Behavioral Health program.

"We're not here to punish," Kessler said. "We're here to work with the parties to help them obtain treatment."

Individuals must appear regularly before the judges for updates on their progress through the program's four stages.

The fact that the treatment is ordered and overseen by a judge may help some clients stay the course. "If its not court-ordered and you're in a psychotic state ... you're going to keep going around that hamster wheel and do the same things over and over," Kessler said.

If clients successfully complete the requirements, some will qualify for a reduced sentence or dismissal of the original charges. For some, the program is considered pretrial diversion, meaning there might be no conviction on their records.

"Sometimes," said Michalk, the district court judge, "I think that grace is a good thing."

The court will convene for the first time Aug. 25 and will meet every other Thursday, Kessler said.

Michalk hopes the mental health court will lead to defendants getting the treatment they need and staying out of the criminal justice system.

"Hopefully," she said, "we won't see them again."

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