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Jefferson City judge, prosecutor candidates debate mental health court

Jefferson City judge, prosecutor candidates debate mental health court

March 24th, 2019 by Nicole Roberts in Local News

Seeing a need in the community, the candidates for Jefferson City municipal judge and city prosecutor all said there should be more resources and partnerships diverted toward a mental health program at the municipal court.

Municipal judge candidate and current City Prosecutor Brian Stumpe said the municipal court currently has a mental health program, one of four distinct programs. The other programs include ones for drug addiction, homelessness and joblessness.

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Started about two years ago, the program relies on volunteers and community partners, such as Pathways Community Behavioral, to come to court and work with clients the attorneys have identified as having a mental illness. The volunteers provide information about services the clients could benefit from. If clients can't afford the mental health services, Stumpe said, volunteers work with them to identify funding options.

"There was a lady who came to court who was bipolar schizophrenic. We identified these issues and got her some services," Stumpe said. "She wrote a 'thank you' to me, saying it was the first time in a long time she was treated like a real person. So we're really trying to identify those issues and find a way to meet people who have needs find services that can meet those needs, but from that change lifestyles and behaviors."

There are ways the program could be expanded, Stumpe said. He wants to work with Lincoln University to get social work or psychology students involved so they can develop hands-on experiences.

Since the attorneys and volunteers can't force individuals to use the services, though, Stumpe said, the program does lack some teeth. However, it helps make people aware of available services and funding options.

Since the mental health program does not have any funds dedicated to it, Stumpe said, it must rely on volunteers to operate.

"Once you identify the need, then you've got to find, 'OK, how can we make this work? How can we create something with no money and do it on a volunteer basis?'" Stumpe said. "The need (has) been known for a long time, but it's just been the ability to find the right people to assist us without being paid to do so.

"A true mental health court, they monitor your medications and all kinds of stuff. We don't have the capacity; we don't have the funding to do those type of things."

A true mental health court is what Jefferson City needs, municipal judge candidate Angela Silvey said, adding the current mental health program is "not being utilized like it should be." She added several local attorneys do not know the municipal court has a mental health program.

"I have never had a client be offered that program, and I've had some that would have fallen within that category. So if it's down there, it's not being used," Silvey said. "I've had several that have had substance abuse problems and I've also have had clients that have continued this pattern of shoplifting, and sometimes people don't realize that is actually a mental illness — kleptomania."

She suggested creating a mental health court where if an attorney believes a client has a mental illness, the attorney can fill out paperwork asking for the client to be entered into a municipal mental health court if the client voluntarily agrees to it. The client would be placed on probation and would have to complete certain tasks within the program.

There would be individuals with partner agencies that would check in on that person to ensure he or she is completing the tasks, Silvey said.

"(If) someone comes to me and says, 'Look, my client has schizophrenia, and she doesn't even remember being there (because) she was off her medicine for a week. Do you have a different option than jail time or putting her on probation and no one following up with her to help her?' — if she's put on probation and she forgets to take her meds and then doesn't make a payment, she's going to end up in jail. So these programs help guide them a little bit more, and it's a little more hands-on than 'Here's a number. Go get some services.'"

Once a client completed the mental health program items while on probation, the city prosecutor would not file charges for the crime, Silvey said. If the client broke his or her probation, the city prosecutor could file charges.

Silvey added there would be specific criteria the client would have to meet, such as being a county resident and having a severe or persistent mental illness, developmental disability or traumatic brain injury.

If elected, Silvey said, she would speak with city officials to see if there is funding available for a mental health court.

While municipal judge candidate Tim Anderson said he would like to research the current program further, he thinks it could be expanded upon, especially since the number of mental health institutions has decreased. He emphasized the importance of the screening to decide if someone would benefit from a mental health court or program.

"Anybody can come in and say, 'I want a different kind of punishment' or 'I want what I've done addressed differently so put me in the mental health court.' Well, it's for those who meet certain qualifications of mental impairment, so you have to screen carefully," Anderson said. "Get people in who you think can be successful and who you think it can help. There are other people where it is not an issue, and it's just a matter of criminality. There are some people who have elected to live a life of crime, and appearing in mental health court is not appropriate for them."

The mental health program also should address the individual needs of each participant, Anderson said. Since he prosecuted several cases throughout the state while serving as a Missouri assistant attorney general, he said, he has seen several ways municipal courts could operate mental health courts. If elected, he said, he would research these different outlets to see what would work best for the community.

While Anderson said he is unsure how to fund the program, he said the mental health program needs strong partnerships not just from local organizations, but also from churches. If elected as municipal judge, Anderson said, he would try to involve all interested local churches and organizations in the municipal court's mental health program.

These partnerships would help make the community aware of the current needs, Anderson said, and it would allow volunteers to mentor individuals.

"I remember sitting in municipal court one time, and there were these students that came through and they were having some issues — they ended up stealing some items from a store," he said. "That would be the perfect place for individuals from a church or churches to partner with these students, these young people, and be a bit of a home away from home."

City prosecutor candidate Scott Evans said he believes the municipal court programs Stumpe and former Municipal Judge Cotton Walker implemented have been successful and wants to build on those if elected. He said he did not believe there was a mental health program at the municipal court and suggested bringing in volunteers from local organizations like Pathways.

"I'm not trying to start anything over from scratch. I don't think that's the way to do it," Evans said. "I think the current programs that are being run by Judge Walker and Brian Stumpe, those are a great basis to start with and that needs are being addressed and services are being provided to people. If there are ways to get creative to expand upon that, then do it."

He said he envisions the program remaining volunteer-based and not using taxpayer funds.

Cole County officials are looking at ways to set up a mental health court, several local attorneys said. If elected, Evans said, he would like to work with county Prosecuting Attorney Locke Thompson to establish county and city mental health courts.

Evans does work as a guardian ad litem for families involved with the foster care system. He said he has witnessed how mental health services can reunite families.

"I've seen a lot of work that Pathways has done with those parents, and when the parents have chosen to take advantage of the programs that are there and have chosen to buy into getting the help they may need, we see a much greater chance of reunification with their kids," Evans said. "My first-hand experience as a guardian ad litem for kids and seeing the benefit Pathways and mental health treatment has had for parents who needed it for a number of reasons and seeing first-hand the improvement and the way they have been able to turn their lives around with a little bit of help is really where this comes from for me."

While city prosecutor candidate Gaylin Carver said there is a need for a mental health court in the area, she said she is unsure if that court should be implemented at both the city and county level or just at the Cole County Courthouse. If elected, Carver said, she would need to do some research before deciding whether to create a mental health court at the city level.

Since municipal court does not process felony charges or convictions, she added, it might be more appropriate for the city to partner with Cole County to establish a mental health court at the county level.

"I don't know how much it'll be needed at the city level. We're talking about traffic and low-level misdemeanor cases and ordinance violations," she said. "You take each defendant on a case-by-case basis, and if the ordinance violation or misdemeanor case they've been charged with stems from a mental health issue that they're dealing with, I think you deal with it on a case-by-case basis."

If the county does create a mental health court, she added, she would look into partnering to tap into those resources.

If the municipal court did create its own mental health court, Carver said, it would be on a much smaller scale and would address smaller infractions.

"One mental health illness is kleptomania, much more prevalent than people realize," Carver said. "'If a defendant is committing the crime of shoplifting due to this mental illness, then as a prosecutor, I would include as part of a sentence to obtain the appropriate treatment for this illness, whether that be through a mental health court program or as part of a sentence recommendation."

She added it would be ideal for a municipal mental health court to be volunteer-based but that the court would need to work with organizations like Pathways, Preferred Family Health and Cole County Community Health Center to supply volunteers.