By JON GASKELL
Capital News Service
LANSING – Officials are looking to expand a pilot program that has kept hundreds of mentally ill defendants from going to prison.
In his address on public safety, Gov. Rick Snyder proposed $2.1 million in new funding for mental health courts, a pilot program operating since 2008 that allows defendants to avoid jail time by completing court-monitored treatment.
Snyder also proposed starting a new mental health court in Saginaw County, bringing the total number to nine.
The program is currently funded by $1.6 million in federal stimulus money, which will no longer be available by the end of the year.
“Mental health courts are the best resource available to provide treatment to mentally ill individuals who break the law,” Snyder said.
The program is modeled after drug courts and requires participants to undergo outpatient treatment, counseling, drug testing and monitoring. Successful participants usually remain in the program for one to two years.
Since the program’s inception, mental health courts have been operating in St. Clair, Genesee, Berrien, Oakland, Jackson, Grand Traverse, Wayne and Livingston Circuit Courts. So far, 685 defendants have participated.
Department of Corrections Director Dan Heyns said prisons have seen a large increase in the number of mentally ill inmates in the past two decades. Deep cuts to the state’s mental health system, coupled with a lack of funding for local health services, left thousands of patients in communities that were unable to deal with them.
Many of those patients ended up behind bars.
“They’ve been getting locked up for years but are ill-suited for the prison system,” Heyns said. “If nothing is done to help people get better, they’re only going to come back.”
Michigan has had success in lowering recidivism — new crimes committed by former inmates — in recent years. A 2011 Pew Research Center report found the state’s three-year recidivism rate dropped to 32 percent from a high of 45.7 percent in 1998.
Heyns said new approaches are necessary, not only to keep inmates from returning to prison but also to keep down his department’s ballooning health care costs.
According to Heyns, Corrections spends $300 million per year providing health care for the state’s 43,000 inmates.
Of that population, 20 percent of male inmates and 25 percent of female inmates exhibited “severe psychiatric symptoms,” according to a 2010 University of Michigan study.
Department of Corrections press officer Russell Marlan said more mental health courts would lead to significant savings.
“If you can control their health problem, you can control their criminal behavior,” Marlan said. “It generally costs between $3,000 and $4,000 a year to keep someone in the program while it costs the state $34,000 to keep them locked up.
“Judges, sheriffs and prosecutors are supportive of this because these savings are real,” Marlan said.
Angela Minicuci, public information officer for the Department of Community Health, said that while studies of the effectiveness of mental health courts have not been completed, there is evidence of success on the local level.
“The courts have been successful in engaging participants for the program,” Minicuci said. “We’ve also had a reduction in recidivism among participants and a reduction in prison utilization.”
Marcia McBrien, public information officer for the Michigan Supreme Court, said the program should be expanded further in the future.
“Of the 277 cases currently open, none have been convicted of a new offense while in the program,” McBrien said.
© 2012, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Nonmembers cannot reproduce CNS articles without written permission.