Elizabeth Chiepalich understands the impact a mental illness can have on a family. Her father has suffered from schizophrenia since being exposed to nerve gas at his job; she has cared for him since.
“It’s hard for the mentally ill, especially those without family,” she said.
It’s that level of experience that has her pushing for Mobile County to adopt a mental health court. The special court would help relieve the burden placed on law enforcement and would benefit those suffering from mental illnesses.
Right now, if a would-be defendant suffering from a mental illness hallucinates on the side of Government Street and causes a disruption, for example, they could be facing time in Mobile Metro Jail, she said.
If that person has another mental health episode once they’re released from jail, they have to go back through the court system. Many times, the judge and attorneys defendants are assigned are different and have little to no knowledge of previous issues. A mental health court could remedy some of those issues, she said.
“With a mental health court there’s one judge and that judge is trained and educated in mental illness,” she said. “The judge would have a file with the diagnosis. It is just smart to do this. It’s a no-brainer and it would save so much money.”
Other parts of the state like Jefferson County have special mental health courts and, most recently, the Alabama Legislature approved one for Baldwin County.
A bill, sponsored by State Rep. Matt Simpson, R-Daphne, created the court after he and other Baldwin County officials, including District Attorney Bob Wilters, witnessed how the court in Birmingham worked.
The court will function as a diversion program, Simpson said, where a case manager could be assigned and the defendant could go to counseling.
“It will get them the help without going through the jail system,” he said.
The program was just approved and Stimpson said he wanted to leave the inner workings of it to the professionals so there is still a lot to be decided about how it will operate.
Jefferson County Circuit Judge Stephen Wallace has been handling drug court cases in the Birmingham area since the mental health court was recreated in 2015.
The lack of a mental health court in Jefferson County, due to a municipal bankruptcy, highlighted the need for it all the more, Wallace said.
“There were a lot of people in jail with nothing to address their needs,” he said. “People just got warehoused in jail.”
Since the reactivation of the mental health court, Wallace said, the jail population in Jefferson County decreased.
The diversion program, he said, employs three social workers who contact defendants once a week to check on them, make appointments for them and, sometimes, drive them to appointments.
The court would never take the case of a murder suspect, Wallace said, but has been known on occasion to take a nonviolent felony case and some minor assault cases involving family members. The court usually looks at eligibility on a case-by-case basis, he said.
Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran supports a mental health court. He said it would benefit the sheriff’s office and Metro Jail, which is treated like a mental health treatment center at times.
“Historically, the persons responsible for appropriating the money figure out it’s cheaper to put them in jail than a mental institution and they get dumped on us,” he said.
Mental health grant
The next time a Mobile police officer has to interact with a member of the public experiencing mental health issues, a certified, professional counselor could be right beside them, helping to deescalate the situation.
A $742,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice will allow the city to partner with AltaPointe Health to provide on-call counselors to help police better deal with situations involving those suffering from mental health issues, Mayor Sandy Stimpson announced in a press conference Thursday morning.
“Hardly a day goes by without a police officer coming into contact with someone suffering with a mental illness,” Stimpson said. “They turn to best practices in those situations, but it’s always a challenge. We’re very fortunate now to have AltaPointe to call and give them the help they need.”
The pilot program would allow mental health professionals to get involved before an arrest is made, Stimpson said.
“The early intervention would allow us to handle it in a better way,” he said. “We are very excited about this.”
The majority of the $742,000, or about $620,000, would go to AltaPointe. The remaining $122,000 would be split between the University of South Alabama for research and the Mobile Police Department (MPD) for enhanced training, Stimpson said.
The grant would fund the pilot program for two years, which Stimpson hopes could be extended if it shows success.
The program is greatly needed in the Mobile area, AltaPointe CEO Tuerk Schlesinger said. Since October 2020, he said, there have been 6,000 mental health screenings at Metro Jail. Since 2019, there have been 21,000 such screenings at the jail.
“We have got a major problem,” he said. “This grant goes a long way in dealing with that problem.”
In addition to helping police deescalate a situation before an arrest, Schlesinger said the grant would allow AltaPointe to go into the jail to provide services to inmates and help identify mentally ill individuals during interactions with law enforcement.
MPD officers are already trained on how to de-escalate situations, Executive Director of Public Safety Lawrence Battiste told reporters. The enhanced training would seek out officers who have a passion for dealing with the mentally ill and put teams together in each police precinct. MPD would also work within the community to help identify those in need of mental health care.
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