The First District Mental Health Court (MHC) is a specialty court program designed to assist eligible defendants in addressing co-occurring mental health and criminal justice issues that are combined so as to interfere with either possibilities of reducing criminal recidivism or achieving mental health recovery. Through the mental health court program, justice involved individuals with a serious mental illness are diverted from the traditional criminal justice system and placed in an alternative judicial/clinical environment. In this environment, defendants participate in individualized and group treatment programs, make regular court appearances, are monitored closely for program adherence, complete a variety of judicial, clinical, and functional projects, and ideally advance incrementally in successive levels of responsibility toward mental health recovery and legal reconciliation.
Eligibility for participation requires that the candidate have a serious and persistent mental health condition and a current Axis I mental illness (e.g., schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, etc.) as the primary diagnosis. However, diagnosis alone does not guarantee acceptance. Other criminogenic factors are considered including (but not limited to), the degree and nature of the criminal offense, criminal history, substance use/abuse history, criminal personality characteristics, patterns of association, motivation, and degree of readiness to change, etc. Finally, candidates must be determined to be legally eligible to participate. Generally, the court will accept Class A misdemeanors and felony offenses, although Class B and C misdemeanors in most cases, given the lesser degree of legal penalty and limitations relative to probation services, may be excluded. Violent offences, sexual offences, and other related substance abuse offenses that more appropriately fall within the jurisdiction of the local drug court may also be grounds for exclusion, although all program referrals will be screened on a case-by-case basis. The County Attorney’s office subsequently determines legal eligibility.
Eligible candidates are further evaluated by a collaborative mental health court team which consists of the District Judge and court clerk, representatives from Bear River Mental Health, Bear River Drug and Alcohol, city and county law enforcement, Adult Probation and Parole, defense bar, and the Cache County Attorney’s Office. The MHC team meets prior to each status hearing to assess individual progress, determine eligibility for program advancement, problem solve difficult cases, and review new program referrals.
Program acceptance requires entering a plea of guilty, which is generally held in “abeyance” meaning that judgment and sentencing is postponed upon condition of compliance with MHC requirements. Following successful program completion, the charges (information) are either dismissed or the defendant receives a step reduction. Some defendants may plead guilty with no plea in abeyance and then are sentenced into MHC as a condition of probation. A withdrawal of a plea is not allowed if one terminates or voluntarily opts out of the MHC program. In each case, the County Attorney must approve and recommend any entry to MHC, and any step reduction or case dismissal.
A mental health court status hearing follows the MHC team meeting and functions as the forum for judicial interview and dialogue with each defendant scheduled on the court docket for that day. The mental health court status hearing reinforces the seriousness of the defendant’s involvement with the criminal justice system and serves defendants as a vehicle for progress reporting as well as a learning opportunity. All defendants are encouraged and publicly supported in appropriate and responsible decision-making; however, defendants may receive sanctions for failure to adhere to program expectations, or for violating the terms of their MHC agreements.
The program incorporates four (4) phases or levels of advancement. These phases are considered to be ascending, meaning that movement from one phase to a succeeding phase is intended to be an upward progression. As the participant advances in the program, more is expected in terms of commitment and active participation toward mental health recovery, and in turn, less is required regarding court appearances, program supervision and monitoring, and court imposed restrictions.
In keeping with the spirit of affirmation and social reinforcement, the mental health court periodically conducts a “court of honor” which functions as the valediction and exit ceremony for program participants who have completed all program phase requirements. The concept of valediction, which represents a farewell and celebration of the participant’s attainment, is preferred over the more terminal concept of graduation. The notion of farewell signifies a departure, both from the standpoint of an ending as well as a beginning, which more appropriately fits the recognition of the end of formal program participation and the beginning of meaningful living unencumbered by criminal conviction.
The First District Court in partnership with Bear River Mental Health (BRMH) and Utah State University has sponsored and conducted two mental health court conferences to date, highlighting the critical work of merging specialty courts and mental health systems in managing the complications of mental illness with justice-involved individuals, and providing an opportunity to advance the development and efficacy of mental health court systems. Both conferences were held at Utah State University in the consecutive summers of 2011and 2012. Attendees came from court jurisdictions in Utah, Idaho, Alaska, Florida, Georgia, California, and Washington State. A third Intermountain Mental Health Court conference is currently being planned for July 2014, of which further information can be obtained by visiting the imhcc.org website.
District Judge – The Honorable Kevin K. Allen
Court Clerk – Traci Hillyard, 435-750-1300
Prosecuting Attorney – Denise Ciebien, Cache County Attorney's Office, 435-755-1860
BRMH Mental Health Court Administrative Supervisor – Dennis Kirkman, MSW – 435-752-0750