Shelby County General Sessions Judge Gerald Skahan often sees the same defendants time and time again in his criminal courtroom.
"They're people who have serious, persistent mental health issues, and we see them over and over. It's like, 'You're back again, Steve.' It's the same thing every time," Skahan said.
Some repeat offenders suffering from mental illness are accused of serious, violent crimes, but Skahan said the majority are charged with what he calls "nuisance crimes" — shoplifting, public drunkenness, crimes associated with drug use. The court calls them "frequent fliers," meaning they're in and out of jail eight to 10 times per year.
Beginning this month, defendants suffering from mental illness will be given a chance to have their charges dropped in exchange for completing a year-long mental health treatment plan determined by the new Shelby County Mental Health Court.
Much like the county drug court and veterans court, the mental health court will be voluntary, and defendants will have to be referred, either by their attorney, the prosecution, or a mental health facility. Skahan will preside over the court.
"Starting off, we don't plan to take in anyone with violence in their past, but we will look at it on a case-by-case basis," Skahan said. "If they have stabbing or a shooting, certainly not. But if somebody is having a psychotic episode, and an officer is trying to restrain him to get him into jail, and he fights with the cop, is that really an assault? Probably not."
To qualify, the defendant must have what Skahan calls a "severe and persistent mental illness," so someone with a mild case of depression may not qualify, but a person with debilitating depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia would likely be taken in by the court.
Once they've made an appearance in Skahan's courtroom, a plan for treatment would be outlined, and they'd have to adhere to the plan to make it through the program. However, Skahan said, due to the nature of mental illness, he expects he'll be giving some defendants multiple chances when they fail.
"We would be involved in their life for a year, and we'd get them set up with mental health treatment or drug and alcohol treatment, depending on what they need," said Kim Daugherty, the mental health court coordinator. "Some people might need inpatient care and some may not. It depends on the severity of their illness."
Care would be paid for either through a defendant's own insurance or through the state's Behavioral Health Safety Net funds, Skahan said. So there'd be no additional cost to Shelby County taxpayers. The court was made possible by two state grants — one for around $80,000 and another for $125,000.
"The benefit to the community is this is a tremendous savings because it's expensive to house somebody in jail and give them their medicine. Studies have shown it can cost in the millions," Skahan said. "If somebody gets arrested 40 times in the next five years, that's going to cost thousands of dollars. The workload on jail staff for one person with mental health issues is usually the equivalent of what they do for 10 non-mental health inmates."
The court will see its first defendant this week, and there will be a public open house celebration some time in February, but the date is yet to be determined.
"It's vital we address the underlying reasons for criminal behavior. The mental health court will ensure the offender gets the needed assistance to reduce the chance of reoffending. This specialized court will be an effective and innovative asset to our criminal justice system," said Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, who was invited as First Lady Michelle Obama's guest for the State of the Union due to his work on criminal justice reform.