BROOKSVILLE — The county's first mental health court will be in session this summer.
Chief Circuit Court Judge Daniel Merritt Sr. signed an administrative order late Thursday creating the court for the 5th Circuit.
The goal of the program is to identify and treat offenders who have mental illnesses while keeping them out of jail. Court officials expect to begin the program in June and will continue to search for appropriate clients, aiming for a maximum of five nonviolent offenders.
Hernando joins a list of other counties in the region — Citrus, Pasco and Pinellas — with programs intended to provide treatment for people in jail with mental illnesses.
Research shows offenders with mental health issues often end up in jail because they have no access to treatment. They end up cycling through an already burdened judicial system, costing taxpayers even more.
"It's a similar concept to the drug court, an alternative court where people can get help," said Karen Nicolai, Hernando Clerk of Circuit Court. "It's not a lot of lives we can change, but as we've seen with the drug court, they are ones you can help so significantly. This will be a good use of resources, and keeping people out of jail is cheaper in the long run."
Nicolai explained that the small number of initial participants will help organizers learn how best to operate the program in Hernando. Five clients, the number local mental health providers expect to be able to treat, will also keep costs at a minimum.
While some details have yet to be worked out, the plan is to hold mental health court on the same day as drug court, which is overseen by Circuit Judge Richard Tombrink. On these days, all the key players needed to make the court work will be present.
They include Kathleen Lonergan, who will coordinate the program along with drug court; representatives from the Public Defender's Office, the State Attorney's Office and the Sheriff's Office. Also, the Harbor Behavioral Health Care Institute will be represented.
While these agencies will help identify possible participants, Nicolai said officials at the Hernando County Jail most likely will notice inmates with mental illnesses first.
Defendants who take part in the program must agree to comply with all requirements and treatments. If not, then he or she will be sentenced for their criminal offense by Tombrink or will be referred to another judge.
A joint effort of several county agencies, the mental health court came about after a major effort in February when Nicolai and Hernando Health and Human Services director Jean Rags called the parties together.
According to the 2006 county health assessment, Hernando has a great need for mental health services that do not exist here. In many cases, Hernando County ranks higher than the state average in telling statistics. For example, Hernando's age-adjusted suicide rate, at 20.9 per 100,000 residents, is much higher than the state's, which is 13.7 per 100,000.
Hernando also has more people taken into custody under the Baker Act, when they are deemed a harm to themselves or others, than the state average. In 2003, local authorities initiated about 704 Baker Act cases per 100,000 residents, compared with 609 per 100,000 statewide.
NAMI Hernando president Darlene Linville said Friday she was excited that the mental heath court will soon be a reality. Nationally, the group has made the topic of inmates with mental illness a top priority.
Next weekend, the group will also hold its annual seminar on the same subject. It includes a panel discussion about mental health courts with local and state officials.
"We're thrilled with the cooperation between the county and everyone else involved," Linville said. "And we're really excited that we can tie these issues together for our community. (A mental health court) not only saves money, but it's a community safety issue as well as a human dignity issue."
Chandra Broadwater can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1432.