Midland County’s Mental Health Court aims to rehabilitate minor offenders with mental illness

“As a judge, we have tremendous authority, but jail is not always the answer,” says 42nd Circuit Court Chief Judge Stephen Carras. “... We can do what we’ve always done and we’re going to get what we’ve always got.”

 

Judge Carras has presided over Midland County’s Mental Health Court since its inception one year ago. It’s a state-certified specialty court where people with mental health issues who have committed a crime are put into a treatment program, rather than sent to jail.
The Midland County Courthouse is located at 301 W. Main St. in downtown Midland.

“There’s no one approach that can fix every situation and that’s where this court really shines,” says Stefphen Shellenbarger, Adult Mental Health Court coordinator. “Every individual, every incentive, sanction, approach, is tailored to that individual. It’s very much custom to them and it’s not just [a] one-fix-fixes-all kind of situation.”

 

I was invited to join their court meeting over Zoom on Jan. 7. The treatment team called in from their homes or offices, while Judge Carras presided from the bench and the defendants sat in the stands — some accompanied by family members. Each client rose and reported their progress to the court.

 

42nd Circuit Court Chief Judge Stephen Carras presides over Midland County’s Mental Health Court.“Tell me about your two weeks,” states Carras.

 

They discuss living arrangements, employment status, therapy appointments, and more. If the client complies with the court’s requirements, their name was put into a drawing for a $20 gift certificate. If a client does not comply — for example, missing a drug test — he/she is issued a sanction. That sanction might be writing an essay.

 

Judge Carras carries an air of authority. His tone is firm with each of the clients, yet, he’s patient, understanding and kind — within reason. Even when issuing sanctions and reminding the clients that their position in the program depends on compliance, he is empathetic and encouraging.

 

“The point of following the rules is to help you, to help you and your family,” Carras told a client in court. He told another client, “You’ve made a lot of progress. [This sanction] doesn’t wipe away all the good things.”

 

Outside of court, Carras told me, “We’re hoping that we’re giving them at least a boost in the right direction, we’re setting them on the right track, so that when they’re done with probation here … they have a history of knowing what it feels like when everything feels good, when it’s normal.”
Because of COVID-19, the court meetings are also held synchronously on Zoom. The only people in the courtroom are Judge Carras and the clients, possibly accompanied by a family member.

Currently, the program has five clients. The program lasts anywhere from 12-36 months, so no one has graduated yet.

 

“So many of the clients in the criminal justice system do have mental health issues, and part of our challenge in this last year ... is figuring out who is appropriate,” says Michael Alexander, senior probation officer for the 75th District Court.

 

Michael Alexander, a senior probation officer, volunteers to help with the court program as an added responsibility to his current role. To be a good fit, potential clients first must be from Midland County. Their crime must have an underlying issue linking back to a mental health illness and cannot be sexual in nature or involve aggravated assault or severe bodily harm. Prospective clients are not considered if they are deemed too dangerous. They also have to function at a level that enables them to benefit from this program.

 

“We don’t put people in the community unless we are confident we can be safe,” says Carras.

 

Individuals can be referred to the program. Carras and Alexander want attorneys, treatment professionals, and anyone involved in the criminal justice system to be aware of Mental Health Court as an option.

“It’s another tool in our toolbox. It’s something that might be appropriate,” says Carras.
 

After the referral, a background check is run and the prospective client is interviewed.

 

“You have to agree to the program. It’s not mandatory; you’re not told you have to do this,” says Alexander. “Participation is solely on the individual.”

 

Then, the case is brought to the court team and they vote on whether or not to approve the individual into the program.
Each client reports their progress to the court every two weeks. They discuss living arrangements, employment status, therapy appointments, and more.

 

The jail and prison system do not address mental health issues

 

A 2014 study by the National Research Council found that 64% of jail inmates and approximately half of state and federal prison inmates reported mental health concerns.

 

“I can name 10-15 people that repeatedly come through the Midland County jail, the court system — we know them by name, we know exactly why they’re here. … We have to do something different. We have to think outside of the box on these people,” says Alexander.

 

Stefphen Shellenbarger is the coordinator for the program.It costs approximately $75 a day to house a person in jail. Shellenbarger estimates that by diverting jail time just from the people who have been in Midland’s program, the County has saved $101,475.

 

“There is substantial gain to having [this program], because each day the individual isn’t in jail, it saves us that much more money,” says Shellenbarger. He also adds that it’s much more difficult to receive medications in jail, leaving those with mental health issues poorly equipped to reenter society when they’re released.

 

This program is funded through a grant awarded by the state. In 2020, Midland County received $40,290, which went primarily toward drug testing and Shellenbarger’s salary. The program was renewed with increased funding for this year, at $50,000.

 

“The state has made big investments in specialty courts — drug courts, sobriety courts, mental health courts, Swift and Sure programs,” says Carras. “The idea of all that … is trying to do things a little bit differently than the traditional model, which is just jail and checking them through a probation agent on a regular basis. … And we hope by doing this, through the mental health court, we’re hoping to treat these people better — do better by them — while they’re on probation.”
Individuals can be referred to the program. Carras and Alexander want attorneys, treatment professionals, and anyone involved in the criminal justice system to be aware of Mental Health Court as an option.

Besides the immediate financial savings from jail time, Mental Health Courts have longer-lasting positive effects. “The whole community is better off because it has a tendency to reduce crime,” says Carras.

 

“[Jail or prison] doesn’t really provide any long-term benefit for the defendant — for the individual — because he’s not getting any better,” says Carras. “And therefore, it’s not providing long-term relief to the people that are affected by his behavior.”

 

Carras explains that mental health-related crimes not only affect the individual, but also that individual’s family and their children.

 

“That’s where the whole cycle comes from,” says Carras. “You raise your children with the same problems you had. You’re instilling in those kids that same behavior that you had — the same values or lack of values that you had.”

 

Beyond the individual and the family is society.
A 2014 study found that 64% of jail inmates and approximately half of state and federal prison inmates reported mental health concerns. By focusing on mental health treatment, the court aims to address the underlying issue and reduce crime.

“There is no separate felony-ville where people can go to live. We can send them to jail or we can send them to prison, but they will come back,” says Carras. “They don’t get banished and they don’t get fixed; that doesn’t just magically happen. And I’m not saying people think that, but you do have to think about that as a concept.”

 

Carras goes on to say that doing the crime and doing the time isn’t enough — the underlying issues need to be addressed. Even if someone goes through the program, there’s a chance they might commit a crime again. When you consider how big an impact one person has in their community though, every person makes a difference. So far, there have been no new arrests or violations with Midland’s Mental Health Court cohort.

 

As court adjourns, it’s time for the drawing. Two of the five clients met all of their goals, so their names are entered into a bowl. Shellenbarger drew the name from his office, announcing the name to the courtroom over Zoom.

 

“I’m not known for being very soft, but also, I want the best,” says Carras.

Read more articles by Crystal Gwizdala.

Crystal Gwizdala grew up in the Tri-Cities and enjoys broadcasting all the positive change happening in Midland. As Assistant Editor for Catalyst Midland, her favorite topics are environment, wellness, mental health, and the arts. As a human, Crystal is a serial hobbyist: hiking, drawing, yoga, and playing music. Her work can be seen in The Detroit Free Press, Midland Daily News, and The Delta Collegiate. To see what Crystal’s up to, you can follow her on Twitter @CrystalGwizdala.
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