ROCKVILLE – The Montgomery County Council voted Tuesday to set aside $193,561 to help fund a new court that would serve as an alternative court for those suffering from mental illnesses.
The council is providing $163,609 to hire two therapists for the Department Health and Human Services (HHS) and $29,952 to cover operating expenses at the circuit court.
The Office of Problem Solving Courts will provide $97,000 to help cover costs at the district court in the County.
Former County Council member Phil Andrews (D) said he expects the mental health court to open by November.
It is designed mostly deal with non-violent offenders who are in need of mental health services.
“Our jails have become the place where, increasing so, people with mental illnesses are housed when they get into trouble with the law,” said Andrews, the director of crime prevention initiatives for the State’s Attorney’s Office in Montgomery County.
Andrews helped lead the push for the County to set up aside a mental health court as part of a task force for State’s Attorney John McCarthy.
To be placed in a mental health court proceeding, rather than a traditional judicial one, an offender has to be referred by a mental health official, where a judge could require that the offender seek treatment rather than jail time.
Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge John Debelius said the mental health court will help repeat offenders who are in need of mental health treatment.
Debelius said the mental health court will mostly affect minor cases that would typically end up in the district court.
“They’re often minor, they’re misdemeanors,” Debelius said. “I mean it could be urination in public, trespassing, minor shoplifting, the kind of things that gets people arrested over and over again and brought through the system.”
Andrews said there are more than 300 mental health courts nationwide, including three others in Maryland. Mental health courts have reduced recidivism by 20 to 25 percent in some jurisdictions, according to Andrews.
“We should feel confident that it will have a very positive impact on our community based on the experience of many other jurisdictions in the country including three other jurisdictions in Maryland,” he said.
The mental health court will help alleviate a national trend as the penal system being the main state provider of mental health services.
Andrews said there are not enough beds to house people at state mental health institutions, so jails and prisons inevitably become the biggest state mental health services provider.
Raymond Crowel, chief of Behavioral Health and Crisis Services for HHS, talked about how far the County has come on the issue.
During the hearing, Crowel said the County could not afford a mental health court when he studied the issue back in 2010.
“It’s an opportunity for us to divert folks in the system from a cycle of jail to street to jail and to get them the help that they need,” Crowel said.
After the hearing, the council unanimously approved funding for the mental health court.
“It’s sort of painful to hear that we were not ready before,” said Council member Roger Berliner (D-1). “I guess it’s a happy day that we are ready now to do something that absolutely must be done.”