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Justice for mentally ill

In the wake of what local police have described as a surge in mental health-related calls, the Jackson County Circuit Court is expanding its options for criminal defendants with mental illnesses.

Judge Lisa Greif says the county's first mental health court opened its referral process May 18, after several years of discussions among  the criminal justice and social services communities. It's a joint effort between the judiciary, Community Corrections, the district attorney's office, Jackson County Mental Health and the Medford Police Department.

The court is an attempt to apply the concepts used in the county's drug and family courts to criminal cases with mental health components. In the existing two courts, officials say the goal is to address not just the crime but also the underlying issues that may have led to the crime. A successful conclusion can keep the accused out of jail or prison.

"(Completing mental health court) can result in either a reduction or dismissal of criminal charges," Greif says.

To complete the program, the person must agree to regular meetings with a judge and to comply with a treatment plan ordered by the court and set up by the agency team members. There may be additional goals set as well.

Greif, who also oversees the family treatment court, said the discussions that led to the mental health court started in 2012. Greif took on two early test cases earlier this year, and both people are still in the program, she says. A third client is expected to start next week.

"We're starting small," Greif says. "I think the initial goal is to start with 10 people and see where it goes from there."

District Attorney Beth Heckert says the law recognizes two forms of diminished culpability as a result of mental illness.

Defendants whose conditions prevent them from understanding the court proceedings are typically transferred to the state hospital until they're fit to stand trial. The other scenario is when a defendant is found to have been incapable of being able to conform to the law at the time of the crime. Typically, she says, those people would be eligible for supervision by the state Psychiatric Security Review Board rather than serving jail or prison time.

But Heckert says the comparatively long length of psychiatric supervision compared with jail sentences for first-time offenders discourages some defendants from pursuing a psychiatric defense in court. 

"You will have truly mentally ill people who will choose to be under the criminal system rather than under the psychiatric review board," she says. "Where mental health court helps is offering these people services without having to submit (to indefinite psychiatric supervision)."

Greif says the interagency team has established specific criteria for admission to the mental health court. 

"You have to have a qualifying, serious, persistent mental illness," she says. "It has to have a diagnosis within one year (of applying to the mental health court)."

Qualifying conditions include schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, she adds. Prospective clients have to be facing criminal charges in Jackson County Circuit Courts and can't be charged with sex crimes.

"We're not taking any sex offenses," she says. "And you can't be on active supervision for a sex offense."

Greif says people charged with violent crimes will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

In order to be considered for mental health court, applicants have to authorize the release of their medical and legal information for review by the team members, who vote on whether the candidate should be admitted.

"It's a majority decision," she says. "No one person has more power than anyone else."

If admitted to mental health court, defendants are expected to meet weekly with the team. If they're diagnosed with substance abuse issues, Greif says, they'll likely be required to complete treatment as part of their court requirements.

"We may set employment goals," she says. "We may be able to assist with housing."

Greif describes the ultimate goal of the court as building "pro-social wellness into (the defendants') lives," giving them a safety net they can fall back on when they struggle in the future.

"Mental health is a health issue," she says. "If we can keep them out of the criminal justice system, we're doing something right."

Reach reporter Thomas Moriarty at 541-776-4471 or tmoriarty@mailtribune.com. Follow him at @ThomasDMoriarty.

Inmates rest on bunks in the Jackson County Jail. A new court approach to dealing with the mentally ill is intended to keep them out of jail by focusing on treatment. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch
Lisa Greif