DALLAS — Polk County Judge Norman Hill could trace his frustration how the criminal justice system handled mental illness to the day a man stood before him for sentencing as his family watched.
The man, a former honors student with a college scholarship, began struggling with mental illness in his late teens, which led to multiple run-ins with local law enforcement.
Hill had already sentenced him three times before. After he delivered his fourth sentence, the man’s father spoke to Hill.
“What do I do?” the father asked.
Hill didn’t have an answer, but he said he wanted to find it.
Meetings began with the Polk County Jail Diversion Task Force — a group comprising Polk County Circuit Court, the Polk County District Attorney’s Office, local law enforcement, community corrections and Polk County Behavioral Health — to find the answer.
“All of us had different perspectives on the challenges presented by mentally ill defendants,” Hill said. “From the court’s perspective, these defendants are on a carousel of dysfunction.”
The defendants would commit crimes and be placed on probation but then would fail to get mental health treatment, commit more crimes and end up back in jail.
“We needed a new tool to try and break that cycle,” Hill said.
Friday court is one of those tools, he added. The treatment court focuses on defendants whose crimes are caused in part by symptoms of serious mental illness.
Some counties, like Marion and Clackamas, already have mental health treatment courts in place, but the program is not available statewide.
The program is voluntary and rigorous. Participants meet multiple times a week with mental health counselors and receive help with medication management, housing, job assistance and close supervision with their probation officers.
They also meet every Friday with Hill and members of the treatment team, which includes therapists, attorneys, prosecutors and probation officers.
Treatment team member Tim Park said in his experience as a prosecutor and defense attorney, incarcerating those with mental illness or placing them on basic probation has done little to address the root cause of their crimes.
“It’s sort of like placing a Band-Aid on a bullet wound,” he said. “It might sound like you’re tough on crime, but it often makes the community more unsafe in the long run.”
The program is funded by a grant received from Oregon Health Authority to support the development of jail diversion programs, said Sara Dotson, adult intensive services program manager for Polk County Behavioral Health.
Participants must have a severe mental illness, and their level of crime has to be such that they don’t pose a safety risk to the community.
“Incentives vary depending on the phase the participant is in, and what’s going to be most meaningful to the individual,” Dotson said. “To enter the incentive is their life back.”
They get access to employment services, housing and family services. Some charges or probation violations could be dismissed upon successful completion of the program.
After more than a year in the program, the first two graduates stood before Hill and accepted their certificates of completion. Fellow program participants, their family members, treatment team members and members of the Oregon Legislature cheered them on.
Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, thanked the graduates for being pioneers in changing the way the criminal justice system handles mental illness.
“Forty-eight percent of all Americans will be touched by mental health care issues,” Boquist said.
Instead of stigmatization, those people need a path forward.
“Finally, for once, in this country, we’re starting to realize that half the population has this issue and that it is not something to be hidden in the state’s mental hospital,” he said. “We’re starting to realize there’s a lot more work to do.”
Cindy Thomas, the mental health court therapist and coordinator, fought back tears as she introduced the two graduates: Kelly Fields, of Grand Ronde, and Anthony Brown, of Dallas.
She recounted how far they’d come in get their driver’s licenses back, finding jobs, reconnecting with their families and becoming part of the community.
“You’re such an inspiration,” Thomas told Fields. “Thank you for paving the way.”
The state motioned to dismiss their probation violation charges. Hill agreed and dismissed the charges.
Ten people remain in the program and will be graduating in the near future. One participant stood up in court and told Fields and Brown he wanted to follow in their footsteps.
Fields said going forward, he wanted to stay connected to his church and support groups. The treatment court proved to be invaluable in his recovery.
“It’s given me the structure and accountability that I need,” he said. “The team was always available to talk to.”
His father walked up to him and hugged him.
“I’m so proud of you, son,” he said.
Earlier, Field’s mother addressed the court.
“I now have my son back,” she said.