Sarpy County law enforcement and elected officials have been in the forefront of highlighting one of Nebraska’s biggest challenges: developing alternative approaches to avoid incarceration for people with mental health issues. Sarpy has now taken a pioneering step in helping address the problem.
Sarpy has created Nebraska’s first diversionary court for people with serious mental health challenges who are facing nonviolent felony charges.
District Court Judge Stefanie Martinez, who will preside over the court, described the need appropriately: “We’re seeing more and more people enter the criminal justice system who have severe mental health diagnoses. Because of a lack of resources, we’re incarcerating those individuals instead of addressing the treatment they need.” She expressed thanks for the support provided the effort by the Nebraska Supreme Court, the Legislature and Sarpy County government.
This is by no means the first time Sarpy County leaders have pointed to this important issue. The establishment of a problem-solving court for mental health issues is in line with Sarpy leaders’ previous discussion of creating a short-term mental health crisis center available to local law enforcement. Police and sheriff’s deputies regularly must handle situations involving men and women facing mental health challenges. In many cases, those individuals wind up behind bars.
“We have criminalized mental health,” Dan Hoins, Sarpy County administrator, observed in 2019. “They’re sitting in our jail. We have to fix that.”
An average of 28% of the Sarpy County Jail’s inmates at any given time have a diagnosed serious mental illness. A study found similar numbers for the Douglas County Jail: 34% of inmates had an acute-level mental illness, 27% screened positive for post-traumatic stress disorder and 29% had a substance abuse disorder.
Problem-solving courts, such as the new one in Sarpy, are one tool Nebraska can use to achieve constructive alternatives to incarceration, including for those with mental health needs, Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Heavican told the Legislature last month in his annual State of the Judiciary Address. In the same vein, the Nebraska court system’s strategic agenda for 2021-23 also emphasizes the role of such courts in stabilizing individuals and reducing recidivism.
Participation in the court is voluntary in the Sarpy court, known as the Wellness Court. Participants must meet a set of requirements. They must pass a competency evaluation, plead guilty to the charge and meet regularly with the judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, treatment providers, probation officers and law enforcement. Supports will address the individuals’ needs regarding housing and treatment. Programming may include involvement from family members and peer-support specialists.
“We’re building a team of people around that person and finding the medications and therapies that work for them, and making sure they’re following through on treatments,” said Chris Lathrop, a division lead for the Sarpy County Public Defender’s Office.
Through this well-structured effort, Sarpy County is setting an important example for the entire state.