Sporting a cap, T-shirt, cargo shorts and flip flops, “Jim” entered the courtroom in Virginia, Minn., and sat beside county probation officers Kelli Horvath and Scott Carlson and assistant public defender Bhupesh Pattni.
He placed his hat on the table and palmed a sobriety coin from his recovery group.
Sixth Judicial District Judge Michelle Anderson, who presides over the St. Louis County Mental Health Court on northeastern Minnesota’s “Iron Range,” wasted no time in setting rules of the game.
“Everyone in this room [will] work with your probation officer to get you successfully living in our community,” Anderson told Jim, after introducing him to members of a team that included the clinical director of the local mental health center, a substance abuse counselor, and the local police chief.
“But part of it’s on you. There are incentives and there might have to be sanctions. But by all accounts, you’re doing really well right now.”
Jim, 23, was already well known to local authorities. He had pleaded guilty earlier this year to fifth-degree possession of methamphetamine, a gross misdemeanor, after police found a stolen firearm in his home. (Names of all defendants in this story have been changed to maintain their privacy.)
But Jim made clear that he was anxious to address his problems, and this court had been set up specifically to help individuals in similar situations—if he proved willing to follow the rules.
He was the first participant in St. Louis County’s new mental health court, the fourth such court established in a statewide program aimed at providing an alternative to jail for offenders whose misdemeanors or felonies resulted from significant mental health or substance abuse issues.
For the next 60 days, Jim would be obliged to attend weekly court hearings, treatment and mental health therapy, and consent to regular visits with his new probation officer while working with team members to address his housing, transportation, insurance, and medication needs.
He would have to remain sober for at least 14 consecutive days before moving to the second phase.
Jim, who told the judge his girlfriend was now his fiancée, and that he was the father of a young boy and girl, said he was ready.
“I’ve been to treatment,” he said. “Things are clicking this time.”
“Sounds like you have support,” Anderson said. “And you have a significant other and two children. Your daughter is turning one. That’s an age you don’t want to miss.
The team showered Jim with words of encouragement.
“I met you the second day of treatment last month and you look wonderful,” said Brandon Mattson, the substance abuse counselor. “Good decision-making. Good job.”
Vern Manner, the police chief of Chisholm, Minn., added “In this courtroom is a collage of people that want to help you. You have our support.”
County authorities had reason to believe their new court would live up to its promise.
Reason for Optimism
Minnesota’s first mental health court, established in nearby Hennepin County in 2003, recorded 50 percent of its 175 participants as successful graduates from their program in the spring of 2018. Some 57 percent of the participants spent no time in jail and 58 percent who exited did not recidivate within two years.
There was also a 42 percent drop in unemployment and 86 percent of participants left the program with health insurance coverage.
Like similar courts around the nation, Minnesota’s mental health courts are responses to a failure in our approach to individuals with serious mental illness who find themselves in trouble with the law. Many states across the U.S. have closed large state-run mental hospitals, leaving many of the most seriously troubled to cycle in and out of jail.
The Council of State and Local Governments reported in 2002 that “people with mental illness are falling through the cracks of this country’s social safety net and are landing in the criminal justice system at an alarming rate.”
In Minnesota, as elsewhere, it created a “crisis situation,” that few were prepared for, said Sally Tarnowski, the district’s chief judge.
“Community-based facilities were not able to handle the number of people out of state hospitals,” she said in a telephone interview. “All jails around the country have since turned into mental health facilities.”
She added: “if our nation is going to have jails be our largest psychiatric care centers, then we should treat them that way. We should have psychiatrists at jails to help people rather than what we’re doing now.
“It’s no fault of the jail. It’s a societal thing. We’re criminalizing our mentally ill and not appropriating them for living in communities.”
Several more cases were on Anderson’s docket that first day in her courtroom.
One involved a 49-year-old Hibbing, Minn., man who was convicted of fourth-degree assault on a peace officer, a gross misdemeanor.
Two years ago, Hibbing police responded to a report that “Robert” walked out his back door and fired three rounds from a long rifle over the roof of his neighbor’s house, before returning inside his own home, according to district court reports. This was not the first time Robert shot the rifle in that way.
Police stated that Robert did not let them into his home. When his mother arrived on scene, she told officers her son “had recently been admitted to the hospital on mental health holds, however, neither the hospital nor her son, would tell her anything regarding the hospitalizations.”
She said her late husband killed himself with a firearm and that she was worried about Robert since he had lost his business and had been struggling to find work.
When the mother used a key to get into the home, her son ran to the door, yelled and began shoving her. He then grabbed the officer’s arm and head-butted him just below the eye. Officers handcuffed him and transported him to Fairview University Medical Center-Mesabi in Hibbing, where he was placed on a mental health hold.
‘Is This Overwhelming?”
“How are you doing today? Is this overwhelming?” Anderson asked during the court hearing.
“I’m doing alright, thank you,” Robert said, his mother sitting behind him in the courtroom.
He went on to tell the judge that he has been spending time with his family and at social events in the local church.
“We’ll get you connected with any services you might need in our community. That’s our goal.”
“That’s very comforting,” he replied.
The calm atmosphere in the courtroom changed when 49-year-old “Melissa” told the judge that she no longer wanted to stay at the Merritt House Intensive Residential Treatment Center in Virginia, Minn. A month earlier, she was convicted of possessing counterfeit currency, a felony, for trying to use a fake $100 bill to buy beer at a local bar. She told the judge she now had enough money saved to find an apartment of her own.
“You did well in treatment, but you were ordered to stay at the Merritt House as a condition, and you left twice,” Anderson said.
“You don’t have a home. It’s not a good situation. It’s concerning behavior and I’d rather see you in the community, but that’s not an option today.”
The back-and-forth lasted for some time, with Melissa arguing that she was staying at her friend’s house and that she did not want to be penalized for leaving the house. The judge said she could request a hearing to discuss the matter further.
“I want my life. I did what I was told to do. It was counterfeit money,” Melissa said. “Now I have the opportunity to get an apartment and I want my own apartment. I haven’t been running around.”
“Will you test clean today?” Anderson asked.
“I for sure have some THC. But I will stay away from everything. I promise.”
A corrections officer handcuffed Lauren, before the judge added: “I don’t want to see you sitting in jail, but you absconded from supervision twice and you need to know you can’t make your own rules.”
The officer then escorted her out of the courtroom to get transported to the County Jail to await her next court hearing—a week away.
On that opening day in her courtroom, Anderson was still optimistic in an interview with the Hibbing Daily Tribune.
“This is some of the best work that I do,” she said. “It gives people an opportunity to get help in their communities and succeed, rather than sit in jail.”
For additional reading on mental illness and the justice system, see also:
“The Kindness of Strangers”: A Last Resort for the Rural Mentally Ill”, The Crime Report, Oct 26, 2018.
“When Jail is an Early-Warning Center for the Mentally Ill”, The Crime Report, Dec. 27, 2018
Eric Killelea, assistant editor of the Hibbing (Minn.) Daily Tribune, is a 2018-2019 John Jay/Rural Justice Reporting Fellow. This is a condensed and edited version of a story produced for his fellowship reporting project, the fourth in a series examining the state of rural justice in Minnesota. The full story is available here.