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Creating mental health court in York County could save lives, solicitor says

Herald - 4/18/2017

April 18--YORK COUNTY -- When law enforcement officers deal with offenders who suffer from mental illness, York County Sheriff Kevin Tolson says, the offenders are at a "crisis level."

At Monday's York County Council meeting, Tolson said one of his deputies recently was at the wrong end of a fully-loaded AR-15 rifle carried by a person they believe is mentally ill.

"Luckily, the deputy was able to calm down the situation," Tolson said. "My fear is someone will get hurt. My deputies ask me 'What do I do?,' and there's less resources to help."

Kevin Brackett, 16th Circuit Solicitor, says creating a mental health court in York County will not only save money by keeping repeat offenders out of jail, but also keep the public safe. Brackett, Tolson and York County probate judge Carolyn Rogers introduced the concept at Monday night's council meeting.

Brackett said beginning a mental health court -- similar to ones in Charleston, Columbia and Greenville -- would create a new branch of the court system with the purpose of addressing mentally ill offenders who are often caught in a "vicious cycle." He said they are often held in custody while officials wrangle over whether they are mentally competent to stand trial.

Some offenders are bailed out, but re-offend if they are unable to keep up with their medication schedule, he said. And others, Brackett says, sit in prison because their family or friends feel they are unable or unwilling to help them.

"A mental health court seeks to break that cycle," Brackett said. "It diverts people from court to a structured environment."

In that environment, Brackett said, offenders attend regular sessions with the presiding judge and other mental health professionals. Those experts are able to identify what mental health issues offenders may be dealing with and could dispense advice on how to live with mental illness, Brackett said.

Brackett said he and a few of his colleagues could easily identify 10 to 12 re-offenders with mental illnesses they deal with on a regular basis.

"If we can get these individuals identified, and get them their initial help and support system," Tolson said, "it's $63 we don't pay each day for them to sit in jail. It will make a difference."

Offenders would be monitored around the clock and kept up to date with their medications, Brackett said. He said that would keep offenders from committing crime while keeping them out of the detention center.

Brackett said the "case-by-case" determination of mental illness depends on factors, for instance, offenders who commit violent crimes such as murder or rape would not be admitted to a mental health court. However, "quality of life" crimes like minor assault, disorderly behavior or making threats could qualify an offender for mental illness services.

There would be enough space to operate a mental health court out of the soon-to-be-renovated Moss Justice Center, he and Tolson told Council.

Brackett estimates it will cost about $140,000 annually to fund a mental health court in York County. He said the South Carolina Department of Mental Health has pledged an annual payment of about $60,000, with more donors possible.

Council could consider approving funds to create a mental health court, as well as hire two professionals who would work there, during this spring's upcoming budget season. Brackett said he will wait until a later Council meeting to discuss the cost breakdown of the proposed concept.

David Thackham: 803-329-4066, @dthackham

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