The Misdemeanor Mental Health Court (MMHC) formerly known as the Diversion Treatment Court (DTC) was established in May 2001 and is the longest running mental health court of its kind in Georgia. The MMHC is now a state certified accountability court. The MMHC was inspired by the knowledge that approximately 18-20% of the jail population suffered from a serious mental illness. To date more than 1500 participants have been referred to the MMHC. The MMHC operates under the direction of the DeKalb County Magistrate Court and began with a collaborative partnership effort in 1999 to decriminalize incarcerated defendants with serious mental illness.
The Misdemeanor Mental Health Court began with no funding. The collaborative partnership continues today with the Magistrate Court, local and federal Veterans Administrations, University of Georgia School of Social Work, DeKalb State Court, Georgia and DeKalb National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), DeKalb Solicitor General’s Office, DeKalb Public Defender’s Office, Adult Probation, Jail Mental Health Services, DeKalb County Sheriff’s Department, Pretrial Services, Hope Atlanta and the DeKalb Community Service Board.
The newly redesigned MMHC is a pre-plea and post-plea model accountability court more on the line with a drug court model. In the MMHC, a Post-Plea defendant is required to enter a plea in the originating trial court prior to entering the MMHC; the sentence is deferred for the next 12 months while the defendant participates in the mental health court and with successful completion, the sentence will be vacated, charges dismissed and the record restricted. If a defendant is terminated from the court for noncompliance, the case is returned to the originating trial court for deferred sentencing. A Pre-Plea defendant, however, enters upon approval and without entering a plea before the trial court.
Requirements to participate in the MMHC are adherence to conditions of a case management plan that includes a treatment plan, which is developed specifically for each defendant that includes taking prescribed medications, maintaining appointments with treatment providers, attending court sessions, gender specific group sessions, Thinking for a Change evidence-based therapy sessions, maintaining employment, and going to school or maintaining other daytime structured activity.
The MMHC receives referrals from police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, public defenders, jail mental health, judges, Pre-trial Services, family members and previous mental health court participants. The MMHC referral form may be found at the court’s website. The form may be faxed or hand-delivered to the MMHC administrative assistant or any member of the court staff.
After a referral, a number of steps are necessary before entry into the MMHC. First, referred defendants are directed to a MMHC observation that is scheduled by a court social worker, either from a mini-assessment after arraignment, or after consultation with private counsel, the prosecutor or public defender’s office. Referred defendants who were not directed to observation from a mini-assessment receive a mini-assessment immediately after the scheduled observation. The mini-assessment involves a brief interview and opportunity for court social workers to obtain a confidential release of information to establish the presence of mental illness. A more in-depth assessment and urinary drug screen is scheduled after records confirm mental illness, and referred defendants are connected or reconnected to treatment providers.
Referred defendants are evaluated for participation and approved by the MMHC Interdisciplinary Team for enrollment. Finally, if a defendant enters post-plea, a hearing is scheduled for the defendant to enter a plea, sign a participation agreement and review a treatment plan; and participation in the MMHC is included as a condition of the deferred sentencing. Pre-plea Defendants, however, enter after the approval of the team.
From this point, a defendant is enrolled into the MMHC and assigned a case manager. The defendant begins the twelve month participation through the four phases of the MMHC that include Phase 1, Orientation for 30 days; Phase 2, Treatment Initiation for 90 days; Phase 3, Treatment Maintenance for 120 days; and Phase 4, Transition Completion for 60 to 120 days. A defendant’s compliance and performance determines his or her readiness and ability to move from one phase to the next phase.
The Court is voluntary but a participant must agree to adhere to all requirements of the MMHC. If participants are consistently non-compliant with their case management plans, they are scheduled for a termination hearing, which may result in dismissal from the MMHC. Their case would then return to the trial court for deferred sentencing. The Honorable Rhathelia Stroud is the Presiding Judge. Magistrate Lindsay Jones and Magistrate September Guy serve as Alternate Judges to the MMHC.
The MMHC is available to a defendant at any time in the GAINS sequential intercept continuum from the moment of arrest until a defendant enters a plea. The multiple points of access are necessary for the program’s effectiveness and impact in reaching those individuals suffering from serious mental illness who commit criminal offenses as a result of their mental illness. Issues and evidence regarding mental illness and treatment may surface at different points throughout the lifespan of a criminal case.