It is disheartening to read of Judge Kathleen Jenks’ unwillingness to help some of those most vulnerable of society: those who are mentally ill. Her lack of understanding is a disservice to anyone entering Municipal Court. The criminal justice system realized back in the ’90s that you cannot punish mental illness and addiction out of a person. Hence, the development of treatment courts and therapeutic jurisprudence.
In responding to the several points made in the (Sept. 23 Missoulian) article, I will first explain two terms. Co-occurring illness is the presence of two mental illness disorders: an addictive disorder and a mental disorder or a traumatic brain injury. These must be treated simultaneously to facilitate recovery. Treatment courts are designed to help folks whose offense is directly related to their co-occurring illness and who often repeatedly appear in court by linking them to case management and treatment. This linkage is designed to help prevent recidivism. Herein the term treatment court is used in reference to the Missoula Co-Occurring Court as well as the Veterans Treatment Court. Jenks has stopped referrals to both courts.
Jenks’ belief that treatment court costs too much takes a narrow perspective if you total the financial consideration of someone repeatedly cycling through Municipal Court. If Jenks were to tally the repeated costs involved in these cycles – a city attorney, a public defender, the court clerks, the police, the judge’s time and the cost of incarceration – she would easily calculate the cost savings of a person in treatment court is significant. What cannot be tallied, in financial terms, but which should be the driving force behind jurisprudence, is the alleviation of human suffering.
Whether there is one person or 10 in treatment court, referrals from Municipal Court to the treatment court cost the city very little time and money. Most cases are sentenced by the time they enter treatment court; they have worked with their attorney to include it as part of their sentence. The time in treatment court often starts with sentencing, allowing the treatment court jurisdiction for the full six months, oftentimes a year because there is often more than one charge. Instead of being given the usual judicial admonishment of “don’t get into trouble for the rest of your suspended sentence,” these folks agree to participate in the treatment court. That means they are accountable to weekly appearances in treatment court as well as attending various appointments designed to stabilize and treat the person’s co-occurring illness. The referring court doesn’t pay for these services; they are services available in the community.
I did enjoy a sad chuckle at the comparison of the treatment court with a Cadillac. Considering the shoestring budget we have worked with, it is more like a moped. The only paid position is the coordinator/case manager (through the state’s Office of Court Administration). A federal grant is funding a part-time case manager for the next 18 months. The treatment court team members volunteer their lunch hour every Monday because they believe in affecting change in the lives of the folks on their caseloads. Judge Marie Andersen did not spend a “full day in treatment court;” she came in on her day off, approximately three hours once a month.
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If Jenks and city officials are truly concerned about folks with co-occurring illness and seek to reduce recidivism then I challenge them: apply for one of the numerous grants designed to increase resources to jurisdictions which feel they are strapped financially yet wish to affect change in their jurisdiction.
“Lock ’em up” is no longer the prevailing attitude of the criminal justice system. Lest you think treatment courts are “soft on crime,” it is an evidence-based practice utilized throughout the criminal justice system in the United States, from city courts to federal courts; except in the Missoula Municipal Court.
I urge city officials and organizations, such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Montana Mental Health Association, veterans’ organizations and Montana Disability Rights, to voice your concerns regarding the decision of this appointed judge.
As one mother stated: treatment court gives me hope that my child will receive treatment instead of criminalizing their mental illness.
Theresa Conley of Missoula was coordinator of the Missoula Treatment Courts from 2006 until 2012.