By MARIAN GALBRAITH
At the end of its first year, the Coffee County Mental Health Court is off to a solid start, according to officials, with six graduates and roughly 25 clients participating in the program.
“That’s at least six people who’ve been able to stay out of jail for at least a year, or year and a half,” said Coffee County Judge Tim Brock.
“They’re no longer on probation, and some even have fulltime employment and are leading very productive lives, so we think that’s an accomplishment.
“Some of them would probably be back in jail otherwise, and at a cost of $25,000 per inmate per year, that’s significant.”
Brock said the need for the program arose because most mental health institutions have closed over the last 40 years, and many people with basic mental health disorders end up in jail instead.
“It’s very similar in philosophy to the drug court, which has been in effect for roughly 20 years,” he said.
“It involves intense monitoring, structure and accountability measures, praise and rewards for good behavior, and sanctions for non-compliance, which can include going back to jail.
“These are all non-violent offenders, but without a program like this, they often end up back in jail, which is not really the right place for them.”
Marilyn Woods-Robinson, who developed and now coordinates the mental health court, has been in correctional and psychological counseling for 37 years, specializing in alcohol and drug abuse and related issues.
With a master’s degree in school psychology and a minor in criminal justice from MTSU, her resume includes juvenile prison counseling in Memphis via Correctional Counseling, Inc., Pathfinders substance abuse treatment centers, Woodland Hills Youth Development Center in Nashville, and she also directed a DUI school in Murfreesboro.
“The Mental Health court has given me the opportunity to implement a program that can hopefully help keep people with mental health disorders from getting stuck in the ‘revolving door’ of the criminal justice system,” she said.
She said sometimes it’s as simple as keeping a patient on his medications properly that can make all the difference in getting him out of jail and back into productive life.
“Sometimes people start doing so well on their meds, they’ll think, ‘Oh, I feel fine, I don’t need to take these pills anymore,’ and that’s when they get arrested again,” she said.
After being arrested, potential clients are initially referred to the mental health court directly from the Coffee County Jail.
During the intake interview, defendants are asked a series of questions, including whether they have ever been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, what type of medication(s) they require, and so forth.
“If they answer ‘yes’ to any of those questions,” Woods Robinson said, “the jail calls us.”
From there, she and/or her staff will go to the jail, interview the defendant and find out their diagnosis to determine if they are eligible for the program.
“Usually it’s easy to tell when someone has a mental health disorder, but the type of medication and the diagnosis will give us the information we need, like the doctor who prescribed the meds and can give us some background on the person,” she said, adding that the client must first sign a release-of-information form.
The findings for each prospective client are then presented to the Mental Health Court team, which consists of the director, caseworkers, sheriffs, public defenders, probation officers, and a judge.
Once accepted by the team, Woods-Robinson then helps design an individualized treatment program to address where the individual should begin, whether at home or in a facility, what type of facility, how long, and what type of courses and treatments will be followed.
“We try to place them in the least restrictive facility we can, initially, like their home or parent’s home, if possible, but if they don’t comply with their program in some way, we move them into a more restrictive facility, including back to jail, if need be,” she said.
“Many of these people are homeless and some are women, so if they’re out on the street, they’re vulnerable, and many are abused.
“At least if they’re in jail, they’ll be warm, safe, they’ll get fed, and they’ll get their medications every day, which can go a long way toward getting them stabilized.”
If the client cannot stay at home, court staff will help figure out what type of insurance or coverage they have, or grants that might be available to cover their stay in a facility appropriate to their needs.
“Whether we start them in a 28-day program at Elam (Mental Health Center in Nashville), or in a halfway house, or at home or wherever, they have to come in to the court every week, and they get ‘points’ for meeting certain goals and demonstrating accountability,” she said.
Upon graduation from the program, if all fines are paid, the client’s record can usually be expunged.
Graduates have expressed extreme gratitude for the program, describing it as educational as well as inspirational.
James Shelton, who graduated from the program on Monday, said it was extremely worthwhile.
“You couldn’t ask for a better experience, really,” Shelton said
“They help keep you motivated and help you remember to take your meds and things like that.”
Shelton said he had been diagnosed with depression and anxiety when he had a brief run-in with the law.
“They give you a lot of rewards like Wal-Mart gift cards, and things like that, when you achieve things in the program, but you have to call in regularly and let them know what’s going on, and you have to go to the court a lot.
“But Judge Brock is an excellent person, not just as a judge, but as a person, in general, so it’s been a great experience overall.”
Another graduate, Walter Wilson, said the program helped him realize how much his depression medication made all the difference for him.
“I think it’s a wonderful program and I’d definitely recommend it,” he said.
“I didn’t think my medications were really that important, but they monitored me every day and pointed out things, like how disrespectful I am when I don’t take the meds, or when I was drinking too much with it.
“Ms. Marilyn and Mr. Jackson are a great team. They called me every day and gave me a lot of support and encouragement, and Judge Brock took a lot of his time to speak to us at the graduation, which felt really good.”
Woods-Robinson said the daily phone calls are a crucial part of the program.
“If it looks like they’re slipping in some way, we can often intervene in time to get them back on track before it’s too late,” she said.
While each individual’s program is unique, many include coursework in cognitive behavioral therapies such as Moral Reconation Therapy (MRT).
According to its website, MRT was developed by Drs. Little and Robinson of Correctional Counseling, Inc., in Memphis, where Woods-Robinson worked for them directly.
“MRT is now being used in five countries, including the United States,” she said.
Each person’s program lasts roughly a year, consisting of phases of various lengths, with each requiring less and less responsibility and higher accountability.
“That’s mainly what the program is about,” Woods-Robinson said, “is teaching accountability and giving lots of positive reinforcement for doing the right thing, even ‘when nobody’s looking.’”
Coffee County Sheriff Steven Graves said it was too early to tell whether the program is reducing his inmate population, but he is grateful for it.
“We get a lot of people that have some type of mental health problem, like attempted suicide, for example, and in my opinion, they’d be better served in some kind of mental health facility,” Graves said, “yet they end up here.
“So if there’s any kind of program that can help with that, I’ll definitely support it.”