Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Wednesday, October 2, 2002


Page 3


San Bernardino Court Wins Starring Role in Mental Health Program


By J'AMY PACHECO, Staff Writer


A local court program designed to keep the mentally ill from “recycling” through county jails will be featured in an educational program that will be broadcast by satellite to the state’s judiciary, San Bernardino Judge Patrick Morris said Monday.

Morris presides over San Bernardino’s pioneering Mental Health Court, which will be featured in the program now being filmed by the Judicial Council. The two-hour program, titled “Mental Illness in the Courts,” is slated to be shown over a statewide satellite broadcast Nov. 14, beginning at noon.

Lisa Lightman, who works for the Judicial Council’s Collaborative Justice Program, and a cameraman taped footage last week in Morris’ courtroom. Actor Mike Connors, whose credits include the portrayal of television private eye “Mannix,” narrated an introduction to the program from Morris’ chambers.

Morris called the county’s “leadership role” in the creation of the Mental Health Court a “credit to our judges.”

“It shows we are open to accept new challenges,” he said. “It shows that we are open to the possibility of helping this population address some very important and critical issues.”

Morris said the idea of a Mental Health Court originated in 1997 when Sheriff Gary Penrod approached him and said the Sheriff’s Department was spending “a million dollars a year on medication” for the mentally ill occupying local jail beds. Three psychiatrists and 60 nurses worked at the jail to care for mentally ill inmates.

“We were one of the first in the nation to start down this road,” Morris said of the creation of a Mental Health Court.

Treatment Court Administrator Deborah Cima explained that Mental Health Court is designed to divert the mentally ill from prison into treatment programs. Referrals come most often from the Public Defender’s Office, but can also come from a prosecutor or the Probation Department.

In order to participate in the program, a prospective client must have “had a history of chronic mental illness and a high recidivism rate,” Cima said.

“The target population are the ones with the most impact on the jail and the community,” she added.

Prospective clients must be competent to stand trial, and must not have been arrested for a sex offense. The San Bernardino County program is the only one that accepts felony offenders, even those accused of violence.

“We look at the whole person,” Cima said. “If someone makes terrorist threats, that’s usually a red flag that they’re not thinking right.”

One of the program’s participants was described as an accused arsonist. But review of his case showed he was homeless and started a fire accidentally while trying to use a candle to keep warm, Cima said.

A variety of local programs can be used to aid in their treatment. Programs range from intensive, live-in treatment to less intensive programs that don’t include housing.

Under the jurisdiction of the Mental Health Court, clients spend a year in treatment, and have regular contact with a judge. They are “hooked up” with resources, including housing and treatment providers, that can help them make the transition back into society, Cima said.

A treatment team which includes Morris, treatment providers, public and private lawyers and the Probation Department meets regularly to discuss each client and their progress in the program.

    At the conclusion of the year, clients participate in a graduation ceremony at the county government center.

Cima said 34 graduates have completed the program since its 1999 implementation.

The courts recently applied for a grant to branch out to Morongo, where they hope to be able to establish a low-intensity program.

Morris said the program “really has worked.”

An early graduate of the program, he said, logged 130 bookings in a three-year period before entering the treatment program. Two graduates and a current participant were among those interviewed for the Judicial Council’s program.

Morris said as much as 16 percent of the county jail’s male population and 24 percent of the county jail’s female population on any given day are mentally ill.

“These folks are the most frequent re-offenders,” he pointed out. “They’re the most costly folks to deal with.”

Many of the mentally ill are homeless, Morris said, and many are diagnosed as not only having a mental illness, but also with an addiction, either to street drugs or alcohol. In order for treatment to be effective, both must be treated, he added.

Historically, judges have been inclined to “pass along the problem,” Morris observed, letting “others handle the tough issues of what happens to [the mentally ill].”

“Through these Drug Court cases and Mental Health Court cases, we’ve shown a willingness to take the time and judicial energy to help those people solve the issues that brought them here,” he said. “It is a testament to the courage of the county’s bench to do the right thing for this population.”


Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company