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Sacramento mental health court celebrates graduates, gets $592,000 grant

The court clerk brought cupcakes. The judge brought well wishes and a guest – California’s chief justice.

Tuesday was graduation day in Sacramento Superior Court’s Mental Health Court – a fresh start for the nonviolent mentally ill offenders who successfully made their way through the program.

Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye, formerly a Sacramento Superior Court judge, returned to her home courthouse Tuesday to observe the proceedings and tout the importance of mental health and other “collaborative courts.”

Collaborative mental health courts bring together judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and treatment professionals to help steer eligible offenders toward help and away from jail.

“It’s such an important court, life by life,” said Cantil-Sakauye, who called the court an “evidence-based approach to repairing people’s lives.”

For nearly three years, Superior Court Judge Lawrence Brown has presided over Sacramento’s Mental Health Court. Today, there are about 90 participants in various stages of the program. Three graduated Tuesday.

“There’s always going to be mentally ill, but so many others can lead robust lives if they take their medications and be connected with services,” Brown said.

Participants must be Sacramento County residents with a pending felony or misdemeanor case, though they cannot have been charged with a violent crime or sex offense or an offense where prison is likely. Participants also must have a diagnosed mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder.

If accepted into the court program, offenders plead no contest, are placed on probation and must enter a treatment program and take medication.

The program lasts a year to 18 months. If the participant successfully completes the program, the case is dismissed.

The county’s mental health court is receiving a boost courtesy of an approximately $592,000 two-year Judicial Council of California grant to tackle recidivism, Brown said.

The money will establish a court to treat offenders suffering from both mental illness and drug addiction. Most of the money, Brown said, will go to treatment providers to serve those with dual diagnoses.

About 30 participants are expected in the new court, set to begin in the summer.

“It involves a different way of thinking, but you have to take a different approach to how you handle these cases,” said Ryan Raftery, a supervising public defender for Sacramento Superior Court’s collaborative courts. “It’s an important court because so many of our mentally ill end up in jail.”

Call The Bee’s Darrell Smith, (916) 321-1040.