While still fairly new to the bench, Associate Circuit Judge Meryl Lange has been tapped with the responsibility to launch a mental health court in Cass County.
Lange said after she was appointed to serve as a judge in January, she was approached by County Prosecutor Teresa Hensley to develop a court to assist non-violent offenders combat the underlying issues for their behavior.
“She had seen a need for defendants in her courtroom to have an alternative to jail,” Lange said. “Because they were mentally ill, they needed help instead of punishment.”
Cass County Commissioners gave their blessing for the program during a regular meeting Nov. 7. The program should be functioning by early 2014.
Similar to other specialized courts in Cass County, such as the drug court or DWI court, offenders receive a variety of resources to help curb their problems and become productive citizens and reduce the likelihood of committing crimes.
“When I was in private practice, I had clients that I referred to drug court and I know how much that helped them,” Lange said.
In at least its initial stage, the court will work with municipalities throughout the county, beginning in Raymore. Cases would then be transferred to Cass County.
“They have CIT-trained officers who would identify different defendants that they’ve dealt with over the years or months that have had some issues,” Lange said. “We would put them on a special docket in Raymore and at that docket the defendant would be asked if he or she would want to participate in mental health court versus going through the regular system.”
The individual must have medically-diagnosed psychological issues to be eligible. After meeting with a court monitor, interested individuals would voluntarily sign a participation agreement.
One of the main goals of the program is to keep participants on prescribed medication for their mental health conditions.
“Once they’re on their medication, they usually do better,” Lange said. “There is one person they’ve already been out to 25 times this year. A lot of resources are being wasted on an individual who just isn’t taking their medication, but they’re breaking the law.”
After signing up, defendants would then begin checking in weekly with court-appointed officials at the Justice Center in Harrisonville to monitor how they are doing with their prescribed medications.
Community support specialists will also be involved in assisting participants. Lange said Pathways Community Health has already agreed to partner with the county.
Lange said she plans to utilize incentives to be offered as encouragement throughout the course. Discipline could come in the form of community service.
Participants are expected to be able to complete the court in about 12 months.
“We’re hoping they become productive members of society,” Lange said.
As the court becomes established, Lange hopes to expand the program to other parts of the community. She said the cities of Belton and Garden City have already expressed interest in the program.
“I think it is something we really need in this community,” Lange said. “A lot of families, when they have mentally ill family members, they don’t know how take care of them and they usually kind of drop out of their lives because they don’t know what to do for them.”
Mental health courts are a relatively new concept across the country, but have been proven to be successful, Lange said. She said the Kansas City Municipal Court has had a good success rate with their mental health court program.
“I think they say 80 percent of the folks don’t get in trouble again, which is amazing because most of the time these folks are repeat offenders,” Lange said. “There’s not many (mental health courts) around the state but the concept has been around for several years.”
In the near future, Lange also hopes to develop a veterans court as Cass County has one of the highest veteran populations in the state.
“Instead of sticking them in the system, we would deal with them in a separate, diversion program...to thank them for their service to this country and see if we can help them,” she said. “A lot of times they have mental health issues that have not been treated.”
Lange is not asking the county to fund the program at this time.
“We’re hoping to be able get subsidized through grants,” Lange said. “There are also a lot of in-kind contributions being made.
In other meeting business on Nov. 7, commissioners took the following actions:
Approved the 2014 holiday and pay date schedules for county employees.
Reappointed Bearl Dean, Jeff Shook and Jim Welborn as board members to the Industrial Development Authority with terms ending April 7, 2015.
Accepted a $40,050 bid from Precision Construction, Lone Jack, for dock repair at the Justice Center.
Approved authorization of principal and interest payments on USDA broadband loans.
Approved submitting a letter of request to the Govenor for increased financial reimbursement for state prisioners held in county jails.