KET Legislative Coverage

New Court to Focus on Mentally Ill Clients

by John Gregory | 06/23/14 5:03 PM

As governments have defunded mental health services around the country, the criminal justice system has increasingly become a caretaker for mentally ill individuals. Now Kentucky corrections officials estimate that as many as a quarter of the state's prison and jail population may suffer from a schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or other serious mental illness.

The trend is troubling for both prisons and prisoners. The already over-burdened penal system often lacks the expertise and resources to provide proper care to mentally ill inmates, while the incarcerated may find themselves without effective treatment and enduring experiences they may not even comprehend.

Fayette County mental health advocates and criminal justice stakeholders have advanced a plan to help address the issue in their community. Kelly Gunning of the Lexington office of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and John Landon, an attorney with the Kentucky Department of Pubic Advocacy, joined KET's Renee Shaw on Connections to discuss the proposal.

Lexington Proposes New Court
Following the model of specialized courts like family court, drug court, and juvenile court, the Fayette County mental health court would hear cases involving those known to have a mental illness. The goal would be to divert those individuals from the traditional criminal justice system to community-based treatment and support services to address their underlying medical condition. Such mental health courts already exist in Louisville and in northern Kentucky.

John Landon, a former trial attorney who represented clients at Eastern State Mental Hospital, says Lexington officials have proposed their mental health court plan to the state Supreme Court, which must approve the creation of the new system. He says they hope to have the court operating by this fall.

The project won't seek federal support, but instead will rely on volunteers to conduct court activities. Kelly Gunning says that will give their court more flexibility to deal with issues specific to Lexington and Fayette County.

Failed Treatment Results in Death
Diverting the mentally ill into treatment rather than jail took on a new urgency this spring with the death of James Embry at the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville. Embry was more than half-way through a nine-year sentence on drug charges when he stopped taking his anti-anxiety medications. After suffering increased paranoia and erratic behavior, Embry started a four-month hunger strike, which ultimately lead to death by starvation and dehydration. According to the Associated Press, prison medical personnel failed to give Embry medications that would have improved his mental state.

"The prisons are not prepared to care for these people," Gunning says. "They are responsible, but being responsible doesn't mean you know what to do... We're expecting people that are trained in handling criminal behavior to handle people who are ill."

Landon says the movement to close inhuman mental institutions starting in the 1960s was good in theory. The problem, he says, is that the funding didn't follow to provide sufficient mental health services to individual patients at the community level. While changes to Medicaid and expanded services through the Affordable Care Act may help, Landon argues that part of the problem is that the mentally ill often don't believe they're sick, and if they do, they may not have the wherewithal to secure the help they need.

He sees the proposed Fayette County mental health court as one way of getting mentally ill offenders, especially those who commit minor violations like petty theft, trespassing, or vagrancy, the care that can benefit them, rather than incarceration that could drive them deeper into their illness.

Watch the full Connections program.