Mental Health Docket Makes a Difference
Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Gale Rasin was frustrated.
Too many defendants had unaddressed mental health problems. Judge Rasin believed that creating a mental health case management docket in circuit court could have a transformative effect on certain defendants. But there were not sufficient public dollars to make the program happen.
Fortunately, Judge Rasin had allies to help address this problem — The Mental Health Funders Group.
The group is a peer learning network of Baltimore-based funders interested in the continuum of mental health services — from prevention and early intervention through intensive treatment models.
The group meets monthly at the Maryland Philanthropy Network to learn about best practices, emerging models, and federal, state and local policy trends, often hearing directly from practitioners, advocates and public officials.
At a meeting with the Mental Health Funders Group, Judge Rasin said she saw a problem with the handling of mentally ill defendants in the criminal justice system.
Reflecting now upon the value of creating a mental health case management docket, Judge Rasin said, "A defense attorney would ask the judge to place a defendant on probation, arguing that chronic mental illness mitigated the crime.
"In response to such a plea, a judge would grant the request, and recognizing the need for treatment, would impose a condition of probation such as ‘remain in mental health treatment and take all prescribed medications.'
"Often the defendant would be released from jail, unemployed, uninsured, and sometimes even homeless. He would be supervised by a probation agent with perhaps 100 or more cases to monitor.
"The probation department does not provide mental health evaluations or treatment referrals. It would be the defendant's responsibility to know what treatment he needed, to find appropriate treatment providers, to apply for Medicaid, if eligible, and to prove his compliance to the satisfaction of his probation agent.
"Not surprisingly, a person suffering from mental illness would find these tasks daunting, if not impossible, to perform. So probation became a setup for failure. That is my frustration.”
Finding the money
She suggested to the grantmakers that if she had the resource of a social worker to assess defendants, prepare proposed treatment plans, and actually arrange treatment with providers, that a defendant's chances for compliance would be greatly enhanced.
Soon after the meeting, three members of the group — the Leonard and Helen R. Stulman Charitable Foundation, the Charles Crane Family Foundation and the Baltimore Community Foundation — responded with funding to enable the launch of a three-year pilot program under the auspices of Baltimore Mental Health Systems.
The grant money has funded the hiring of an assessor, a licensed professional counselor who is designated as the "clinical coordinator.”
"The Stulman Foundation funds a number of projects to improve outcomes for people with severe mental illness” says Cathy Brill, program director at the Leonard and Helen R. Stulman Charitable Foundation. "Court-ordered community-based treatment has been shown to be an effective approach in a number of felony courts across the country, and we were pleased to make a three-year grant to bring the program to Baltimore.”
Funders supporting the program believe that it has the potential to reduce the costs associated with incarcerating these individuals and, hopefully, promote public safety.
Additionally, this promising effort will change the trajectory for the mentally ill defendants, contributing to making the criminal justice system more humane. That is what I call an effective public/private partnership.
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