Sarpy County will soon launch Nebraska’s first mental health court, a problem-solving court program that officials say will stabilize participants and treat their mental health issues, rather than send them to prison.
The Sarpy County Wellness Court will be a voluntary option for those with major mental health diagnoses who are facing nonviolent felony charges. The county on Tuesday unveiled the program that’s expected to begin in early February. At full capacity, the program will be able to serve 25 people at a time.
Sarpy County District Judge Stefanie Martinez, who will preside over the Wellness Court, said she often encounters people in the criminal justice system who have unaddressed mental health needs. But those people don’t always receive the help they need because of limited time and resources.
“We’re criminalizing mental health to a large extent, and there are too many people in our jails that are suffering from mental health issues that aren’t being properly addressed,” Martinez said in an interview.
The Wellness Court will be similar to other problem-solving courts in the state in which participants, under the supervision of a judge and others, must comply with strict rules. Those deemed eligible for the Wellness Court must pass an evaluation and plead guilty to the charges they face. Participants will then meet regularly with Martinez, a prosecutor, defense attorney, treatment providers and law enforcement officers.
The team will connect participants with treatment and community services, ensure they have stable housing, and make sure they remain alcohol- and drug-free.
Sentencing is delayed while someone is in the program. Those who successfully complete it can withdraw their plea, at which time the County Attorney’s Office would dismiss the charge. Participants don’t have to complete the program within a certain amount of time as long as they make progress and cooperate.
“We are proud to serve as the pilot site for Wellness Court,” Chief Deputy Sarpy County Attorney Bonnie Moore said in a press release. “This is about giving people resources and helping them build skills so they can manage their mental health and don’t commit crimes again.”
The Wellness Court was made possible in 2016 when the Nebraska Legislature broadened the state’s definition of problem-solving courts, paving the way for local governments to create courts for people with mental illnesses, veterans, those arrested for drunken driving and others.
Then last August, Gov. Pete Ricketts signed into law Legislative Bill 1008, which, in part, provided more than $600,000 to establish and operate a pilot mental health court in the state. A Nebraska Supreme Court subcommittee established best practices and guidance for the mental health court. The county’s application to operate it was approved in December.
Creston Ashburn, coordinator of the Sarpy County Drug Court who also will oversee the Wellness Court, said he keeps up with former offenders who have maintained years of sobriety after going through the drug program. He envisions similar success stories from the mental health court in which participants maintain good employment and reestablish relationships with their families, all while effectively managing their mental health needs.
“Incarcerating them is not helping the root of the issue,” he said in an interview.
People interested in volunteering as a peer-support specialist with the Wellness Court can contact Ashburn at 402-593-2132.
Problem-solving court advocates say the programs save money and help ease overcrowded prisons. As of 2019, the yearly cost of supervising someone in a problem-solving court was about $2,900 compared with an average cost of $38,600 for prison, according to state probation office figures from the time.
Other problem-solving courts in Nebraska include drug, reentry and young adult courts. In 2019, problem-solving courts in Nebraska served about 1,000 offenders.
County leaders say the Wellness Court builds on Sarpy’s other mental health initiatives. The Sarpy County Attorney’s Office in 2014 created a mental health diversion program. In 2018, the Sarpy County Sheriff’s Office created the Omaha metro area’s first mental health law enforcement unit. Plans for a new county jail, expected to have more space to treat mental illnesses, are underway.
The Wellness Court will start small as officials evaluate what is and isn’t working. Ashburn said only four or five people have been identified for the first round of participants, and in the first year, the program may take on 10 to 15.
Martinez said officials hope the Sarpy County Wellness Court will “set the gold standard” and lead to more mental health courts in the state and nation.
But for that to happen, the Legislature would need to allocate more money, as there’s currently none available for more programs, said Adam Jorgensen, Nebraska’s problem-solving court director.
“We’re the first one in the state of Nebraska,” Ashburn said, “so we hope that it goes well.”
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