Kelly Norris is the coordinator of the Ada County Mental Health Court, an alternative to incarceration now offered to some felony defendants with mental health problems. Norris is the liaison between defendants, judges, attorneys, probation officers and an assortment of government agencies. Mental Health Court has only been around since 2005, but alternative sentencing programs are on the rise across Idaho. BW caught up with Norris to find out who qualifies, why it helps and how the program has fared.
The underlying premise of Mental Health Court is that a crime committed by a mentally ill person is not simply a criminal justice problem, but a public health problem, right?
Sure. I would say that untreated mental illness is the public health problem. The stigma attached to being mentally ill and acknowledging it or asking for help are huge. There's a lot of stigma to raising your hand in a group of people and saying, "Hi, I'm bipolar," or "Hi, I'm schizophrenic." And it is a public health issue because we are underfunded generally for mental health treatment.
Who gets to go to Mental Health Court?
There's a pretty broad group. We have some people who've written bad checks, identity theft occasionally, but they tend to be property or drug crimes. If they were floridly psychotic at the time they committed the crimes, that's who we're trying to find. Generally, we don't accept anybody who has a history of sexual violence or predatory behavior. We're trying to find people who are butting heads with the system, who, if they were adequately treated, would never have encountered the system at all. Ethically, from my standpoint, it's the right thing to do to help people who need help.
What do you do to help them manage their mental illness?
We're making sure they get appropriate medication and psychosocial assistance. We're also looking at their criminal thinking to try to change it. We're also addressing their substance abuse issues. Mental Health Court is much more difficult than standard probation, without question. There's a very different relationship between the judge and the defendant that doesn't exist in a standard court setting. And that's important. In every court there's a lot of clapping, there's a lot of positive reinforcement. I think a lot of people that enter the Mental Health Court haven't always had the opportunity for a lot of positive reinforcement in their lives, and I don't know that I ever met anyone in Mental Health Court who didn't have some substantial gift to offer if we could just help them see what it was.
Both Mental Health Court and Drug Court emphasize sobriety. How do you decide which defendants with substance abuse issues go to which court?
It's an interesting question. It used to be that if you showed up to your mental health treatment high, your mental health provider said, "Yeah, well when you stop getting high we'll help you." Or if you showed up to your drug treatment and you were psychotic, they said, "Wow, when you're medicated, come back and we'll help you." When you have both addiction problems and mental illness at the same time, it doesn't just double the impact on the chemistry of your brain, it makes it greater. Although there are many people in Drug Court who certainly have some problems with their mental health, the more severe of those hopefully end up in Mental Health Court. Even though we're still dealing with their substance abuse issues, we're also able to provide support for their mental health issue.
What substances are being abused?
It's across the board. Meth is by far the most common. Alcohol is pretty high, so is prescription drug addiction, whether its benzodiazepines or opiates. Those are both on the increase. Some alcohol, some marijuana, some cocaine, but meth is where we're seeing the biggest addiction component.
Is Mental Health Court more cost effective than traditional sentencing?
If you're looking at saving taxpayer dollars, sometimes it takes a long time to see the savings because you have to consider what would've happened over the next 10 years if they hadn't been treated. In the short run, it may be expensive to treat them, but if we're successful, we've saved the taxpayers a lot of money. I can't give you specific dollars because that's hard to calculate—it's a problem a lot of social programs face.
This is a relatively new program?
This is a relatively new program nationwide. We started in July of 2005. The court in Idaho Falls is a national teaching site, so we're lucky to have that in Idaho because that means we have really good access to getting new information. And although this surprises no one more than me, considering that Idaho is 49th or 50th in funding for mental health services nationwide, mental health courts in Idaho are actually being done very well in comparison to how other states do them.
So what is the success rate?
Anecdotally, I can tell you that out of the 11 graduates that we have had, I'm not aware of any having received any new criminal charges. And then there's measure of success. Are they successful because they're staying on their meds and their mental illness is well managed? Are they only successful if they stay out of trouble with the law? But if they stay out of trouble with the law and their illness is unmanaged, is that still success? Quality of life is a big deal. Personally, I want to know that they have hopeful lives.
And you feel that these 11 graduates do have hopeful lives?
I really do. To be able to live independently, to stay appropriately medicated to the point where you can function in your life and be productive in society and maintain relationships with people and have hope for the future is pretty substantial. People feel like their lives are changed. At some point in time, usually a switch flips, and someone goes from thinking, "This has been an ordeal that I would never wish upon my worst enemy" to, "Oh, I get it," and from that moment things are good. The whole idea of the program is to try not to fit square pegs into round holes. It's all individuals.
What's a typical day at the office for you?
One of the things I love about this job is that I don't have two days that look alike. My job is to interface with all the agencies that participate in Mental Health Court, so I'm kind of the juggler. I'm the person trying to be sure that everyone is effectively communicating and to try to facilitate as much of that communication as I can. I don't really consider myself the leader of the team at all. I'm a coordinator, and that's what I do.