Hamilton County Mental Health Court offers recovery-based alternative to incarceration

Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Boyd Patterson has always been interested in understanding the psychology behind certain individuals’ behavior.

“You can look at the people that come through the court,” Patterson said. “What brings them here?”

Patterson oversees Hamilton County Mental Health Court, which is a program for those with severe and persistent mental health issues who have pleaded guilty to nonviolent crimes. The program offers a recovery-based alternative to jail or prison.

The criminal justice system is designed for a person who preys upon others, but some do not fit into that mold, Patterson said.

Law enforcement can become involved when a person is having an episode in a family member’s basement or creating a scene out front of a local Walmart, he said.

Typically, this type of individual just needs to be on medication and undergo therapy, he said. It may be a person who has no access to services and minimal family support.

Mental Health Court, created in 2015, was designed to help this specific population, Patterson said.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County launches Safe Baby Court to help more children find a forever home)

In Hamilton County, mental health continues to be a major issue within the criminal justice system, Patterson said.

“The sheriff often says that he runs the largest mental health institution in Hamilton County, meaning the jail,” Patterson said.

Law enforcement estimates 60% of people who are arrested or are in jail have a diagnosed mental illness, suicidal or homicidal ideation or mental health issue, according to Brian Bush, general counsel for the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office.

There is no data on the program’s success rate at this time, but the goal of accountability court is to relieve pressure on the jail and make productive members of society, said Hamilton County Director of Intergovernmental Affairs Rebekah Bohannon.

“Mental illness does not absolve you from the law,” Bohannon said. “However, being in jail isn’t necessarily a psychiatric facility either.”

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A person must have a lengthy history of mental illness backed up by medical records to be eligible for the court, Patterson said.

Participants are then connected to community resources including substance abuse treatment when needed, housing, medication management providers and career support, Patterson said.

Schizophrenic men in their 20s are the most represented group, he said.

There are naysayers who do not agree with rehabilitation over incarceration, but there’s a very small percentage of educated naysayers, Patterson said.

“I think that one of the stigmas that Mental Health Court has had to overcome is people who believe abnormally, violent, psychotic criminals are given probation,” he said. “That’s not true.”

(READ MORE: Some suffering from addiction, facing criminal charges in Hamilton County eligible for recovery over jail)

Unfortunately, many people don’t receive needed care until it’s a crisis, said Anna Protano-Biggs, the president and CEO of the AIM Center. The AIM Center is a Chattanooga nonprofit for adults with serious mental illness. The center takes referrals from Mental Health Court.

There has been a real push to have improved quality of and access to mental heath care in Hamilton County, and there is undoubtedly room for improvement, Protano-Biggs said.

“I’ve seen a lot of growth over the years,” she said. “A lot of agencies understand the best support for the community comes when we work together.”

Contact Sofia Saric at ssaric@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476.