SPECIAL REPORT: Prosecuting Mentally Ill

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LANSING, Mich. (WILX) A public health crisis has evolved into a public safety crisis. Every year, across the United States, 2 million people with mental illness are booked into jails, many for the second or third time. This revolving door has police, prosecutors and judges looking for new ways to keep mentally ill out of prison and in treatment.

Tammy Varona says Ingham County's Mental Health Court saved her life. She said, "I knew that I could be normal. I knew that. But I just didn't know how to get there and they helped me." Varona says the court helped her get treatment for the depression she masked for years with illegal drugs. She had been in trouble with the law three times, serving 16 years in prison. After she was released from her last sentence, Varona says she thought she was on the right track until her granddaughter died in a car accident. She said, "I just went off the deep end. I was trying to commit suicide."

Police caught Varona driving With heroin. That's when she was given a choice. She could Spend more time behind bars or earn a second chance through the county's Mental Health Court. Judge Thomas Boyd, 55th District Court, said, "Mental Health Court is the hardest thing I've ever done. There's no doubt about that." Judge Boyd runs one of two mental health courts in Ingham County. He and a team, including probation officers, prosecutors, mental health experts and doctors work together on every case. Judge Boyd said, "We use a lot more incentives in Mental Health Court."

The court takes a different approach, offering defendants kind words, encouragement and support. On one particular day, a man told the judge he wanted to die. Within hours, the team made sure he was safe in a hospital. Judge Boyd said, "We deal with people mostly that have a problem, or made a mistake. And the art in what we do is trying to figure out which it is and trying to help them move forward based on who they are and where they were when they got here." That approach is just one tool to help those with mental illness.

Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon wants to add more. She said, "It really would be, is to avoid have to use jails at all if we can, when people really need services."

Prosecutor Siemon is part of the national conversation to create a stronger safety net. She recently traveled to conferences in Miami and New York City to share and get new ideas. "Its often times the people who create some kind of level of disruption in our community, they don't need to be jailed, they do need help and they need support and they need to be sent to an appropriate person or an organization to help them. We have some ideas of things we'd like to do in the future."

One idea Siemon hopes to implement, is establishing an engagement center. It would have many resources under one roof, to help connect people with the resources they need. Ericanne Spence, Program Director for Community Mental Health said, "It would be just nice to be able to bring them here and we'll sort it all out and if they do need to go to jail, that that's there also."

But Siemon says tight budgets require creative financing. She'd like to work to get private businesses involved. "It is really trying to put together a building and you're using cardboard and duct tape sometimes. We do a really good job, but when a storm comes along, we just have to keep looking for new options."

Options like the Mental Health Court, which takes a more human approach to deciding who needs punishment and who needs help. Tammy Varona said, "Without this program I think I would be dead right now. There's no doubt about it."

Spence says there are challenges to getting mentally ill people the treatment they need. She said not all offenders are eligible for community-based care. Prosecutor Siemon said more beds are needed in forensic centers so offenders who are mentally ill are not waiting in jails until trial. It can be complicated, because most offenders have not only mental health, but substance abuse problems as well.