Sentencing reform draws praise

For many years, authorities agree, treatment options for mentally ill criminal offenders has been severely lacking. Now, a program launched by the city of Tempe is not only experiencing success but gaining wider recognition.

Acknowledgment of the hopefully trend-setting endeavor comes in the form of a 2004 Advocate of the Year award from the Arizona Coalition to End Homelessness, presented to Tempeís Mental Health Court at the organizationís annual conference Nov. 16 in Phoenix.

Recognizing advocacy work on behalf of people experiencing homelessness, the award cites the success of Tempeís efforts, which coalition officials say have contributed significantly to systems-level changes and elimination of the root causes of homelessness.

Judge Louraine Arkfeld, who presides over the special-focus court, says the award pays tribute to the efforts of many, but adds that the job isnít finished.

"There is still much work to be done," she says.

The court, established in 2003, has 19 current participants, six of whom are homeless and eight with co-occurring disorders, such as mental illness and substance abuse. 

Participation is voluntary, and those successfully completing the diversion program are eligible to have their charges dismissed. 

All participants are diagnosed as seriously mentally ill, seen by a case manager and deemed eligible by the city prosecutor.

Program participants attend monthly court hearings before a judge, where compliance with court requirements, including progress with treatment services, is closely monitored. 

Prior to that hearing, the judge, prosecutor, defense attorney and treatment provider discuss each case to address progress. 

Non-compliance may result in sanctions, ranging from additional participation in treatment services and increased attendance at court hearings to program termination. Those terminated are not eligible for dismissal of charges.

Officials say the program has offered a diversion option for the seriously mentally ill and aided them in accessing various services in an effort to provide greater stability and lessen the likelihood of their committing new criminal offenses.

According to a court spokesman, the program is designed to:

Effectively provide mentally ill offenders access to treatment.

More effectively coordinate services between the courts, criminal justice system and treatment providers.

Reduce the level of recidivism of mentally ill offenders.

Provide more cost effective/efficient use of resources than traditional courts.

Provide more expeditious case resolution than traditional courts.

Provide more effective community reintegration services than traditional courts.

U.S. statistics indicate that mental illness and homelessness are linked. According to the National Resource Center on Homelessness and Mental Illness, people with serious mental illness are over-represented among the homeless population. 

While only four percent of the U.S. population has a serious mental illness, say center officials, five to six times as many people who are homeless (20-25 percent) have serious mental illness, including severe and chronic depression, bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorders and severe personality disorders.

Those who are homeless and seriously mentally ill are twice as likely to be arrested or jailed, mostly for misdemeanors, than those who are homeless and do not have a seriously mentally ill diagnosis.