Cullman County launches mental health court

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Cullman Tribune file photo

CULLMAN, Ala. – Cullman County Circuit Judge Gregory Nicholas and mental healthcare provider WellStone on Monday announced the formation of Mental Health Court, a specialized court for people living with serious mental illness. According to a release from WellStone, the court is intended to “hold people accountable for illegal behavior while also helping them receive the mental health services they need to achieve stability.”   

“The Mental Health Court will help make our community safer by reducing the number of crimes committed by individuals suffering from mental illness,” observed Judge Nicholas. “With early identification of those individuals charged with non-violent offenses who are mentally ill, appropriate mental health treatment can be provided through a mental health court that monitors compliance with an individualized treatment plan. Without treatment, a person’s mental health condition will normally worsen, substantially increasing the likelihood of further involvement in the criminal justice system.” 

WellStone CEO Chris Van Dyke shared this statement:

Over the past decade, courts across the country have expanded the use of therapeutic or treatment court programs. Cullman County currently operates Drug Court and Veterans Court programs. These innovative efforts seek to address issues involving underlying substance abuse, mental health or other conditions which otherwise have jail or prison as the punishment. Mental health courts are emerging as an alternative to the costly warehousing and ineffectiveness of incarcerating individuals suffering from mental illness. 

These reforms recognize that individuals suffering from mental illness are overrepresented in prison populations. According to the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) two in five incarcerated persons have a history of mental illness. Mental health court participants are individuals who suffer from serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, bi-polar and major depression, and consequently, become entangled in our criminal justice system. 

This is a new option in Cullman County for people with current criminal charges, separate from our equally important civil commitment process administered by the local probate court for individuals not charged with a crime. Individuals with non-violent criminal charges can apply to mental health court through their attorney or the District Attorney’s office. Those accepted into the program will plead guilty to their charges but receive a suspended sentence as long as they are following the treatment recommendations of mental health professionals and the requirements of the court. At the end of an agreed upon period of time, if the participant remains in good standing, the charges will be dismissed. 

Services will be provided through WellStone to Mental Health Court participants regardless of ability to pay, supported by funding from the Alabama Department of Mental Health and a grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Applications are now available through the Cullman County District Attorney. 

WellStone Inc. is a non-profit community organization that provides mental health and substance abuse services supporting the integrated health of the whole person. WellStone operates 12 facilities throughout North Alabama. WellStone is certified through the Alabama Department of Mental Health to offer programs for children, adolescents, adults, substance abuse, school-based outreach, community services and more. For more information, visit http://www.wellstone.com. 

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