- Associated Press - Sunday, July 31, 2016

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - A Tennessee county’s mental health court has reached capacity in just a few months and is asking the state for additional funding.

The Commercial Appeal (https://bit.ly/2aUej49 ) reports the extra funding would double the number of people served by Shelby County’s mental health court, from about 25 to 50 people.

The court opened in late January as a way to provide wraparound services for people with mental illnesses who chronically wind up in jail.

The county has asked the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services for $78,000 to pay for a full-time case worker to handle the increased load, said Martha Lott, director of the county’s community services division.

“To me, being able to help someone that has had no one there to help them with situations like this, it’s very rewarding,” she said.



As the court’s sole coordinator, it has been Kim Daugherty’s job to manage the needs of people who have been referred to the court by the district attorney general’s office, defense attorneys or the sheriff’s office.

“We’re really helping people who are not violent, who find themselves arrested many times for nuisance sorts of things that nearly everyone can agree them being in jail is not the solution for that problem,” she said.

Those being served have been arrested an average of 136 times, with records that go back 20 to 25 years, Daugherty said. The most common crime is theft. They have been diagnosed with conditions that include bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.

County Mayor Mark Luttrell said mental health court doesn’t excuse criminal behavior, but works to address the needs of mentally ill defendants.

It’s another of the county’s specialty courts for drug users, veterans and domestic violence that are part of the over-arching initiative to overhaul the criminal justice system, Luttrell said.

“We try to make sure prison is reserved for people who indeed need prison,” he said. “People who can be dealt with in alternative ways that are less expensive, we should take advantage of that.”

To stay in the yearlong program, the defendants must plead guilty, but once the program is completed, the arrest is expunged, Daugherty said.

While in the program participants are given mental and physical health care, help with alcohol and drug abuse, housing assistance and if they are capable, employment assistance.

With an estimated 500 people in jail each day with a diagnosed mental illness, Daugherty knows that helping just 50 barely scratches the surface of what needs to be done.

But for now, the focus must be on quality and not quantity, Daugherty said.

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Information from: The Commercial Appeal, https://www.commercialappeal.com

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