- The Washington Times - Monday, December 29, 2003

NORFOLK (AP) — Circuit Judge Charles E. Poston calls them “frequent fliers” — mentally ill people charged again and again with nuisance crimes such as trespassing, stealing or public disturbance.

Most need medical help for their diseases, but Judge Poston’s options are limited to jail or release. He soon will have another choice.

Hampton Roads’ first mental health court is scheduled to open in January.

“If we can do something to help them stabilize, it’s cheaper from a human point of view and it saves us money,” Judge Poston said. “Some folks are just sitting in jail trying to be restored to competency to stand trial. It’s six months until they can get into a state-run hospital, so they sit in jail all that time.”

Officials hope to serve about 30 people in the first year.

Hundreds of people in jailed in Norfolk or Portsmouth have mental illnesses, says the Community Services Board, which serves the mentally ill in Norfolk.

Most of those wind up in jail largely because they are not seeking treatment, said Marty Phillips, the board’s mental health director.

The idea of a special court for the mentally ill surfaced less than a decade ago, and only a few dozen exist across the country. The first began in Broward County, Fla., in 1997.

Some critics say mental health courts bring the mentally ill to treatment too late and unfairly make sick people into criminals.

Michael Allen is a senior lawyer with the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in the District, a civil rights law firm that focuses on mental disability issues.

Mr. Allen said the mentally ill land in court because community mental health services have not done enough to reach them.

“Police, judges, jails and sheriffs ended up dealing with a population they were not prepared to deal with,” Mr. Allen told the Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk. Then, he said, the sick person has a criminal record in addition to his illness.

Mental health court officials agreed with Mr. Allen in principle. People with mental illnesses should be helped before their sickness leads to crime, they said. But in reality, they said, that does not happen. That is why Judge Poston is willing to try what he called “therapeutic justice.”

Judge Poston recognized the danger in creating specialty courts for defendants. But drug courts and mental health courts serve a specific purpose, he said.

“These two things — drugs and mental health — are people with very specific, treatable needs,” he said.

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