On Nov. 19, the Institute of Government and Politics held a forum relating to the court system and the mentally ill. Judge Kevin Allen of the First District Courts was the speaker at the forum. The following are a few of the things that Judge Allen spoke about at the event. Background information on Judge Allen and the mental health courts can be found in the previous post.
1) How He Got Involved with the Mental Health Court
When Judge Allen began the interview process to become a judge, he was asked at every step of the way if he would be willing to start a mental health court. He said yes, despite the fact that he didn’t know anything about mental health courts. At the time of his appointment, there was only one other mental health court in the state of Utah, and it was located in Salt Lake City. Judge Allen said running a mental health court in Cache County is very different than running one in Salt Lake because they have many more resources than he does. The other judges in the First District Court told Judge Allen that he could run the mental health court if he wanted, but that he would still be expected to do an equal amount of work in the regular courts. He agreed to this and assembled a team of mental health experts, prison officials, USU professors and police officers, and together they did the research needed to open the mental health court.
2) The Problem with Our Criminal Justice System
“It’s estimated that one in six prisoners has a serious mental illness,” Allen said. “Not just a mental illness. I’ve read studies that indicate that half of the prison population has a mental illness. But one in six is a serious mental illness: schizophrenia, major bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder. These are serious mental illnesses that, without treatment, cause people to act out in very destructive ways. The problem too is that in prisons, they don’t get any treatment. There are so many rules and regulations at the jail, and they have to have them to maintain order over there, but often times they are really detrimental to those who are mentally ill.”
Judge Allen also spoke about the extreme costs of incarcerating people. He said Cache County alone is spending about $1 million on housing the current mentally ill inmates. According to Allen, if Cache County would instead spend that money on helping these people get treatment, it’d be amazing what that $1 million could do.
3) The Purpose of Mental Health Courts
“The purpose of mental health courts is very simple,” Allen said. “What we try and do is have the person recognize they have a mental illness. By the end of their time with us, I want them to be able to talk about their mental illness to anybody, anywhere, anytime. They have no shame attached to their mental illness. Because that’s one of the biggest problems we have, is that they won’t talk about it or get the help they need. After they recognize it, they have to accept the treatment we are going to give to them.”
Judge Allen then proceeded to share his go-to analogy about mental health. He explained that when someone gets diagnosed with diabetes, that person’s doctor prescribes to them some medication and explains that they will have to change their behaviors. They can no longer survive off of a diet of fast food and soda. If they don’t take their medications and change their behaviors, they will die. According to Judge Allen, mental illness is the same way.
The theory is that if these people can recognize their illness, and accept the treatment the court is going to give them, they will not go back to jail.
4) Why Mental Health Courts Work
“We have the power of the robe,” Allen said. “I have the power in mental health court to immediately remove someone’s liberty. I have complete 100% discretion.”
He gave an example of one woman in the mental health court that was late to every doctor’s appointment she had. Allen finally took the action to tell her he would put her in jail if she was late even one more time, and she hasn’t been late since.
“I have the ability to hold them immediately accountable,” Allen said. “It is a powerful tool.”
5) Mental Health Courts make a difference
“Mental health courts work. We have about a 70% success rate, and we measure success by a lack of recidivism. Lots of them go on to live happy, meaningful lives. You sit in something like this, and you see someone’s life totally change.”
Allen then shared the following parable:
A man was walking along a deserted beach at sunset. As he walked he could see a young boy in the distance. As he drew nearer, he noticed that the boy kept bending down, picking something up and throwing it into the water.
Time and again he kept hurling things into the ocean.
As the man approached even closer, he was able to see that the boy was picking up starfish that had been washed up on the beach and, one at a time he was throwing them back into the water.
The man asked the boy what he was doing. The boy replied, "I am throwing these washed up starfish back into the ocean, or else they will die through lack of oxygen.”
"But", said the man, "You can't possibly save them all, there are thousands on this beach, and this must be happening on hundreds of beaches along the coast. You can't possibly make a difference."
The boy looked down, frowning for a moment; then bent down to pick up another starfish, smiling as he threw it back into the sea. He replied, "I made a difference to that one.”
Allen said the mental health courts teach him the same message as this simple story.
“We are not changing the world, but if we can help out one person, then it’s worth it,” Allen said.