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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Montana's First Mental Health Court is Up and Running

billingsgazette.com: The Montana's lone court specifically for mentally ill people accused of crimes is now in full operation here, after a startup that began with initial funding in 2003.

Without the Missoula Mental Health Court, many of the defendants who pass through it would languish in jail.The court works with prosecutors, defense attorneys and treatment agencies to help people accused of crimes that appear linked to mental illnesses.

"People noticed that drug treatment courts (for addicted offenders) were having positive results, so they began to look at other populations in the criminal justice system that were defined by very specific aspects of the offenders' lives," said Theresa Conley, coordinator for Missoula's mental-health court.

The goal is to divert nonviolent offenders, who have significant mental disorders, into treatment programs rather than keeping them in jail.

Proponents say treating mentally ill defendants less as criminals and more as people who are sick stands to better meet their needs, ease jail crowding and save money. A judge presiding over mental-health court might allow a person convicted of a nonviolent crime the option of participating in counseling or receiving medication, rather than serving jail time.

"We have inadequate mental-health care in Montana," said Standing Master Brenda Desmond, judge for the Missoula court. "We're a far cry from solving the problem, but incarceration is certainly not the solution." Rest of Article. . . [Mark Godsey]

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