North Alabama County opens mental health court

CULLMAN, Ala. (AP) — A new mental health program is now part of the North Alabama court circuit, complementing other programs already in place aimed at addressing underlying issues that may contribute to nonviolent criminal behavior.

Overseen by Presiding Circuit Judge Greg Nicholas in partnership with other Cullman County judges and WellStone Behavioral Health, the Mental Health Court was launched recently as a way to give eligible offenders an alternative to jail and, hopefully repeat encounters with law enforcement.

Participants must apply to be considered for the program, which provides them with a responsible path to avoid incarceration while offering them assistance in receiving mental health services locally.

Cullman’s court system already holds specialty drug courts and veterans courts for nonviolent offenders who show potential for assistance with personal issues related to underlying drug addiction, health mental health and other conditions that could contribute to criminal activity.

Those who enter the mental health court program must first plead guilty to their offenses, but they also have the option of having their charges dismissed completely by reaching court-mandated milestones, which may include regular consultation with WellStone, over an agreed period of time.

Mental health services under the program will be provided by WellStone, and a participant’s financial situation will not affect their eligibility. Any defendant who enters the program will be housed regardless of ability to pay for services, with financial support from the Alabama Department of Mental Health and a grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, an arm of the US Department of Health. and Human Services.

“The Mental Health Court will help make our community safer by reducing the number of crimes committed by people with mental illness,” Nicholas said in a statement announcing the program.

“With the early identification of those charged with non-violent offenses who have mental illness, appropriate mental health treatment can be provided by a mental health court that monitors compliance with an individualized treatment plan. Without treatment, a person’s mental health condition will normally worsen, greatly increasing the likelihood of further involvement in the criminal justice system,” he said.

Addressing mental health issues as part of a defendant’s encounter with the criminal justice system is a self-imposed judicial reform measure that is emerging nationwide as an alternative to sending people directly to jail. with mental illness – a sentence that can be both costly and ineffective for those whose underlying problems persist.

The programs recognize that defendants with mental illness are overrepresented in prison populations, with data from the National Alliance on Mental Illness indicating that two out of every five people incarcerated in the United States have a history of mental illness.

Nicholas said the new program for those charged with non-violent crimes is separate from the civil recognizance process administered by probate court.

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