Pinal County soon will open a court to deal with people in the criminal justice system who suffer from serious mental health problems.
The result will be savings to taxpayers, a reduced amount of jail time for offenders, and speedier treatment for those with diagnosed mental illnesses, say court officials and mental health care experts.
"Right now, they're just included with the high volume of criminal cases that come through the court. These cases need special attention," said Paul O'Connell, administrator of the Pinal County Superior Court.
A recent case in point, say mental health specialists, is a young man in the Pinal County court system who was held in connection with a low-level felony and diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.
He spent 316 days incarcerated, before being directed to residential care at a treatment facility as a term of his probation.
The problem is repeated for low-level offenders with serious mental health issues, say court officials.
They're picked up for urinating in public, minor shoplifting and other crimes that are not a threat to the community.
However, the so-called nuisance crimes can be tough to adjudicate if there is a mental health issue, said O'Connell.
A defendant must be competent to stand trial and often must receive treatment before any of the court proceedings can begin so the defendant can understand the legal issues. Many times the defendants are indigent and sit in jail or a state treatment facility while issues for minor offenses are worked out. Taxpayers foot the bill.
"They just languish in jail until they come to court and hearings are continued and they continue to languish," O'Connell said.
The mental health court, expected to launch in January, is seeking a different path to deal with mental health offenders, said Dianna Kalandros, a mental health court liaison.
"If the alleged criminal conduct is a direct result of their mental illness then they can be put in this court," she said.
Judge Karen O'Connor presides over the probate and mental health division in Maricopa County. The court, established in 2005, places all cases dealing with mental health defendants in one venue and deals with the issues comprehensively, say court officials.
Law enforcement officers are trained to spot mental health offenders and probation officers guide people with mental health issues so they do not revolve in and out of the court system, O'Connor said.
"We have 4 percent recidivism," she said.
"That alone cries out that this is successful."
Kalandros said the cost savings that could be associated with the program was a major factor in gaining support from county officials.
"That's how we get everyone to buy into this is the costs savings," she said.