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Judicial Branch, State of New Hampshire
Laura Kiernan
Communications Director
603-271-2646 ext 2359

Mental Health Court Begins Operation in Portsmouth

Four state court locations now offer sentencing alternatives for non-violent offenders

August 5, 2008 ---The Portsmouth District Court has begun a mental health court initiative to provide non-violent defendants suffering from mental illness an opportunity to participate in a community-based treatment program as an alternative to time in jail. Similar programs, which promote compliance with treatment alternatives as a way to reduce recidivism, are also offered in Keene, Nashua and Rochester District Courts. The first mental health court session will be held in Portsmouth Tuesday August 12 th at 1 p.m. before District Court Judge Sawako Gardner.

In a related development, representatives from the Judicial Branch, mental health care providers, advocates for the mentally ill, law enforcement and the legal community will participate in a two day conference in November to devise statewide sentencing alternatives for non-violent offenders with a history of mental illness or drug dependency. Strafford and Grafton Counties have adult drug court programs; juvenile drug courts are also now in operation in six District Court locations throughout the state and two more scheduled to begin operations in the coming year.

"It is my hope that inviting all the stakeholders, from legislators, jail superintendents, prosecutors, defense attorneys, police chiefs, mental health and substance abuse providers and judges to this conference will produce concrete ideas to shift the mentally ill and drug-dependent offenders from jail to treatment,” said Superior Court Judge Tina Nadeau who has organized the November conference. “Alternatives to incarceration for these population groups will reduce recidivism rates and promote the use of limited resources where they will be most effective. We can stop the revolving pattern of arrest and incarceration if we focus our resources on treatment,” Nadeau said. The November conference is sponsored by the judiciary, the state Department of Health and Human Resources and the Department of Corrections and with a grant from the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation and financial support from county governments..

The Portsmouth mental health court will follow generally the same close-supervision and treatment approaches followed in other mental health court locations. Each defendant is assigned a treatment team that includes a mental health care provider, defense attorney, prosecutor and representative from the city corrections department. The defendant will meet regularly with the judge and be required to appear in court to ensure compliance with their treatment plan, which will include free mental health services.

“ Mental health court will provide an alternative to traditional sentencing. MHC sets aside the adversarial process in favor of a collaborative process that seeks to provide prompt, safe, and effective treatment and supervision, reduction in recidivism and links to services without compromising the safety of the community,” said Portsmouth District Court Judge Gardner, who will preside at the mental health court hearings in Portsmouth.

“Without services, they constantly cycle through our system,” Gardner said. “The goal is to re-route offenders who have mental health disorders out of the criminal justice system and into the community-based treatment system,” she said.

It is expected that if successful, the initiative will result in an improved quality-of-life for these individuals, diminished incarceration, increased overall public safety, and a better use of criminal justice resources. The Portsmouth District Court, the Portsmouth Police, Seacoast Mental Health, the Rockingham County attorney's office and New Hampshire Public Defenders Office partnered to form the mental health court in Portsmouth. Also involving in planning for the project were the Portsmouth Welfare Department; Rockingham County Corrections; Crossroads, a local homeless shelter; The Salvation Army; Rockingham County Probation; Portsmouth Regional Hospital; the United Way and New Hampshire Legal Assistance.

“We hope it will divert people from coming to jail,” said Albert Wright, superintendent of the Rockingham Department of Corrections, referring to non-violent defendants whose behavior is the result of mental illness. “It is the right thing to do. They should not be in jail,” he said.

Defendants can be referred to the mental health court either by the police at the time of arrest or by their defense lawyer. The court would then determine if the defendant should be evaluated by a mental health care provider to determine if the defendant's behavior is the result of a persistent mental illness. If such a finding is made, a treatment plan would be devised and presented to the court. The defendant signs an agreement with the court to participate in a two-year treatment program, during which time any action in their case would be suspended. Failure to comply with program requirements would result in resumption of the criminal case against them, including a trial or imposition of sentence.

If a defendant successfully completes the program, the case against them will be dismissed or closed.

Persons interested in the program should contact the Portsmouth District Court at 603-431-2192.