New Orleans started a mental health court nearly a decade ago but it faltered after Hurricane Katrina and lay dormant for lack of funding until Judge Karen Herman revived it last month with a $100,000 federal grant. The idea, says the New Orleans Times-Picayune, it to devote “wraparound” resources — housing, transportation, health care, treatment, counseling — to mentally ill, nonviolent probationers instead of jail. So far, the restart includes only six “clients” — three men and three women who have taken convictions to be eligible to enter the program.
It’s a long way from the 160 clients the program had at its pre-Katrina peak. Then-Judge Calvin Johnson launched the first mental health court in Louisiana in 2002, aimed at a population with deeper problems than drug court — with its pass-or-fail benchmarks — could effectively handle. Now, courts in at least 13 parishes in the state and hundreds across the country maintain similar programs. Says Johnson, now directing a services agency, “There are lots of obstacles. The biggest one was the storm itself. It washed away treatment.” Most of the new clients came from drug court, referred by judges or attorneys. Depression, schizophrenia, psychosis and bipolar disorder dominate the caseload. So do prior arrests for cocaine. Outside court sessions, clients gripe about the constant requirements: visits by probation officers to check on medications, illegal drugs and living conditions; weekly meetings with a caseworker; random drug tests; clinic visits.