Goal: Keep mentally ill out of jail

Leaders say they also favor providing alternatives to addicts

Staff WriterJune 1, 2008 

— A group of North Carolina lawmakers assured residents Saturday that they support doing more to prevent people with addictions or mental illness from ending up in jail.

Mental illness and its effects on the criminal justice system was the topic of the 30th annual Legislative Breakfast for Mental Health at the Friday Center, attended by community leaders, elected officials and people who either work in mental health fields or have personal experiences with mental health issues.

One of the latter, Kurt O'Briant, shared his success story with the audience. He struggled with drugs but graduated from an Orange County Community Resource Court program two years ago. Now he's clean and employed.

"I wouldn't be here today if it hadn't been for that court," he said. "When I went in there, I wouldn't listen to anybody."

Keynote speaker Joe Buckner, chief District Court judge for Orange and Chatham counties, helped launch Community Resource Court in 2000.

Formed in conjunction with Orange-Person-Chatham Mental Health, it was the first mental health court in North Carolina, bringing together mental health providers, law enforcement communities and others to address mental health needs and addictive disorders in criminal defendants.

Buckner, who grew up in the funeral business, said he decided to approach the problem of recidivism from a customer-service standpoint.

"This is not new business," he recalled thinking. "This is business we're doing anyway. Can we approach it different?"

Orange County's voluntary court-based diversion program is available to defendants who are not deemed a threat to public safety. Participating defendants must agree to comply with a recommended treatment plan for a minimum of six months and check in with the court once a month. Case managers sometimes help defendants find jobs.

"It has a mesmerizing effect on the court workers," Buckner said. "It empowers their therapeutic outreach."

Buckner said he would like to work with the district attorney and law enforcement to implement a program that would offer assistance to those with mental health or substance abuse issues who ordinarily would be charged with minor offenses in the current system.

During a question-and-answer session with state legislators, Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange, said the $8 million in this year's proposed House budget to provide housing for people with disabilities is not enough. She said that the minimum should be $10 million and that she thinks the Senate may raise this year's proposed amount.

"We should not be discharging anybody into a homeless shelter or into the street," Insko said.

Rep. Paul Luebke and Rep. Larry Hall, both Democrats from Durham, voiced resistance to pressure from some to sign off on building more prisons statewide. They argued instead for diverting some defendants to treatment.

Other legislators on Saturday's panel included Sens. Bob Atwater (Chatham, Durham, Lee), Ellie Kinnaird (Orange, Person), and Floyd McKissick Jr. (Durham); and House members Bill Faison (Caswell, Orange), Joe Hackney (Chatham, Moore, Orange), and Mickey Michaux Jr. (Durham). All are Democrats.

A coalition of 40 statewide non-profit organizations presented legislators with a budget request for $173,875,000 in recurring funds and $5,550,000 in nonrecurring funds for support and services to people affected by mental illness, developmental disabilities and addictive diseases.

danny.hooley@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4728

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