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Posted on: March 2, 2022

Mayor Lee Harris' Update: Growing Mental Health Court Doubles the Number of People Helped

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Work is underway to double the capacity of Shelby County’s Mental Health Court. This vital court provides access to mental health care and other services for offenders with mental illnesses. Currently, the court has the capacity to support 50 individuals. We plan to expand to at least 100 people. It's an established program with a proven record for reducing recidivism among its participants. That's why our office put forth a plan to double the hours the Mental Health Court will hear cases and thereby double the number of people it can help. Our plan was approved by the Shelby County Commission and uses federal funds. 

In addition to expanding the number of cases, we will also hire more Shelby County Government behavioral health specialists, pay for the build-out of additional space at the Walter L. Bailey, Jr. Criminal Justice Center at 201 Poplar, and provide other resources for participants. Mental Health Court was established in 2016. It is presided over by General Sessions Court Judge Gerald Skahan, with services administered by the Shelby County Division of Community Services' Behavioral Health Unit. This plan to expand the Mental Health Court would not be possible without the cooperation of our partners, Chief Public Defender Phyllis Aluko and District Attorney General Amy Weirich, and their willingness to work with us so that more nonviolent offenders have access to these life-altering services.

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According to the U.S. Department of Justice, more than two-thirds of inmates in local jails have or have had a mental health problem, compared to 20% of the general population. Many of these offenders are ideal candidates for Mental Health Court. If they are non-violent, meet the criteria, and are approved by the DA’s office, those individuals are assigned a behavioral health specialist, who can help access treatment, along with other support services, like help with substance abuse, finding housing, and finding a job. Participation in the program is from 9 to 18 months, depending upon the offender's needs.

Mental Health Court balances the obligations of the criminal justice system with our obligation to help those living with a severe mental illness. We know that participants in mental health courts have lower rates of recidivism than individuals who go through the traditional criminal court process. Reducing crime and recidivism is a goal for nearly every community. Sending twice the number of people to our Mental Health Court not only helps accomplish that, it does more. It changes the lives of people who would otherwise be in and out of the criminal justice system. Instead of continuous arrests and incarcerations, they get treatment and the help they need to turn their lives around.

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