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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Goal: Keep mentally ill out of jail

CHAPEL HILL - A group of North Carolina lawmakers assured residents Saturday that they support doing more to prevent people with addictions or mental illness from ending up in jail.

Mental illness and its effects on the criminal justice system was the topic of the 30th annual Legislative Breakfast for Mental Health at the Friday Center, attended by community leaders, elected officials and people who either work in mental health fields or have personal experiences with mental health issues.

One of the latter, Kurt O'Briant, shared his success story with the audience. He struggled with drugs but graduated from an Orange County Community Resource Court program two years ago. Now he's clean and employed.

"I wouldn't be here today if it hadn't been for that court," he said. "When I went in there, I wouldn't listen to anybody."

Keynote speaker Joe Buckner, chief District Court judge for Orange and Chatham counties, helped launch Community Resource Court in 2000.

Formed in conjunction with Orange-Person-Chatham Mental Health, it was the first mental health court in North Carolina, bringing together mental health providers, law enforcement communities and others to address mental health needs and addictive disorders in criminal defendants.

Buckner, who grew up in the funeral business, said he decided to approach the problem of recidivism from a customer-service standpoint.

"This is not new business," he recalled thinking. "This is business we're doing anyway. Can we approach it different?"

Orange County's voluntary court-based diversion program is available to defendants who are not deemed a threat to public safety. Participating defendants must agree to comply with a recommended treatment plan for a minimum of six months and check in with the court once a month. Case managers sometimes help defendants find jobs. [Mark Godsey]

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