Judge Kirk Daily
Dealing with repeat offenders is one of the biggest challenges for the criminal justice system in America. Mentally ill individuals who commit criminal acts are among those making repeated trips into the courthouse. In an effort to stem this tide, the 8th Judicial District recently started one of the first mental health courts in Iowa.
In a mental health court, the judicial branch of government collaborates with individuals and agencies managed by the executive branch — the prosecutor and a defense attorney, corrections officers and therapists — to address the root cause of criminal behavior from mentally ill persons. Iowa prisons are filled beyond capacity, with over 41 percent of all inmates having at least one diagnosed mental illness. Some exhibit serious, persistent conditions such as bi-polar disorder, major depressive disorder, psychosis/psychotic disorder and schizophrenia. Nearly 26.5 percent of the entire prison population is seriously mental ill; among female inmates, the incidence is 48 percent.
Mental health court is a selective program that diverts non-violent, mentally ill offenders from prison to intensive, community-based corrections. By treating people locally, correctional costs are reduced. As defendants confront their illness and become empowered to lead more productive lives, the toll crime takes on the community shrinks.
Like the successful process used in other therapeutic courts, Wapello County’s mental health court accepts referrals from judges, attorneys, and probation officers. fter a screening, the entire mental health court team determines whether a willing defendant is appropriate for the opportunity. Once accepted, offenders begin an individualized treatment plan that often requires 12 to 18 months to complete. They attend frequent court sessions, and meet often with the probation officer, therapist and the whole treatment team. Under rigorous supervision, participants must take their prescribed medications, endure random drug tests, obey the law, meet curfew and other probation requirements and maintain a job, stay in school or consistently participate in some other pro-social activity. Upon successful completion of all phases and requirements, participants graduate with new-found skills to cope with mental illness and abstain from criminal acts.
Studies bear out the value of mental health court: participants are less likely to be involved with new crime than non-participants who suffer from mental illness. The program is life-changing for the clients involved — and for the community!
Judge Daily is a District Associate Judge who lives in Ottumwa. By special assignment of 8th Judicial District Chief Judge James Q. Blomgren, he heads the Drug Court and the Mental Health Court based in Wapello County.