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Mental Health Court uses carrot, stick and counseling for healthy diversion from jail

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Editor's note: Today The Rochester Voice publishes its fourth and final instalment of a four-part series on how and why those with mental health issues too often end up in the government's penal system and what are some of the strategies posed to mitigate the problem ... and why all too often those strategies have failed.

Today, a look at what Strafford County and Rochester are doing to try to make the local Mental Health Court work for those in need.

ROCHESTER - Quietly behind the scenes, Rochester's Mental Health Court is working to help mental health sufferers caught up in the criminal justice system get the help they desperately need, and out of jail.

The program has been in place since 2007 and is under the direction of Strafford County Attorney Tom Velardi, who said last week Rochester's Police Department and circuit court services are among the most proactive programs when it comes to "positive interplay between police and the courts."

Circuit Court in Rochester is home to Mental Health Court, where a collaborative effort seeks to channel criminal offenders with mental health issues to treatment and a healthier lifestyle. (Courtesy photo)

"Rochester Police are on top of this and among the most expansive in how they respond," he told The Rochester Voice last week.

At the tip of the spear is a police Crisis Intervention Team that kicks into gear if an incident occurs that involved someone who may have mental health issues.

Then once an individual is arrested and prosecutors realize there is a mental health component that figures into the arrest, Mental Health Court can kick in.

According to the court's web page, Mental Health Court is a 3-phase intervention program designed for adults with pending criminal offenses and who are eligible for appropriate services with Community Partners or qualifying Mental Health Agencies.

Velardi said the court is only available if the offense is a misdemeanor, but even if its a felony, "we can sometimes reduce it to a misdemeanor so they can get the help they need," Velardi added.

The court meets every Wednesday and is a collaborative effort between the 7th Circuit Court District Division in Rochester, Strafford County Community Corrections, Strafford County Commissioners, and Community Partners.

Together the agencies work to track progress, including mandates for counseling and seeing that they stay on prescribed meds. They are also subject to community monitoring and random drug testing. They also have to show up for court appearances.

"At first they have to come to the court every other week," Velardi said. "Then after a while, it might be every month."

The program is designed to divert them from lengthy jail stays. If they comply with program requirements the charges are dropped.

"Most of these people don't belong in a secured psychiatric unit," Velardi reasoned. "The (Mental Health) court has a good success rate."

Those who fail to live up to the requirements of the court can be terminated from the program which can mean jail time.

About 15-20 on average are signed up for Mental Health Court, Velardi said.

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