Butler County wants to set up mental health court

| Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Nearly 50 percent of county inmates housed at the Butler County Prison are taking psychotropic drugs for treatment of mental disorders, the prison warden said, and the county will pursue a state grant to establish a mental health court to rehabilitate those offenders without putting them in jail.

Butler County will pursue a $150,000, two-year grant that could pay to establish a mental health court, similar to the county's drug treatment and veterans courts.

“The problem with all the mental hospitals closing down, it's like we have nowhere to put (patients),” Warden Rich Shaffer said. “We just put them in jail, and that's not the solution.”

County commissioners on Wednesday gave the court administrator's office approval to apply for the grant through the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency. The grant would fund the program fully for the first year and 70 percent in the second year, according to Deputy Court Administrator Tom Holman.

Holman said that the county's Criminal Justice Advisory Committee had recommended the mental health court as a priority for 2015-16, but the state made grant money available, which accelerated that process, though there's no guarantee the county will get the funding.

Butler County President Judge Thomas Doerr said a mental health court would allow better supervision of offenders, and raises the probability they won't repeat their crimes.

“If you're able to solve the problem, there's a lifetime possibility or probability this defendant is not going to get arrested again,” he said.

Treating patients with mental health patients on an outpatient basis is problematic, the judge said.

“With inpatient treatment, you can ensure compliance. Outpatient treatment, you can't.”

A mental health court would have a cumulative effect, Doerr added. “If we're successful with five people (a year), over 10 years, that's 50 people out of the system. That's a significant amount of savings.”

Court officials are determining criteria to choose participants, but Holman said he expects groups of 30 people to go through the program at one time.

Of the nearly 240 county inmates in the prison, almost half are taking psychotropic medications, Shaffer said, a sharp increase from about 16 percent about two decades ago. Those drugs can treat mood disorders, depression, anxiety, mania and other problems.

All inmates are screened at admission for what treatment they need, and their medical records are obtained from their doctors so that they're given the correct drugs and dosages, Shaffer said.

Inmates with severe mental problems are taken to a psychiatric unit at Butler Memorial Hospital, Shaffer said, and then transferred to Torrance State Hospital in Derry, Westmoreland County.

Shaffer supports the idea of a mental health court.

“What it comes down to, you have to assess someone who commits a violent crime, to see if they had been in proper treatment and on medications, would they have committed this crime?” he said.

Defendants in the county's drug treatment and veterans courts serve a probationary period instead of going to jail, but are monitored much more closely than other defendants on probation, Holman said.

Defendants meet each week with a county judge to talk about their progress and undergo counseling and treatment. The veterans get treatment from the Veterans Administration in Butler.

The programs aren't only designed to keep people out of jail, but to keep them from being repeat offenders, Holman said.

As for the success rate, Holman said, “It depends on who you talk to. There are some stunning victories and some very sad losses. There are some where you think people are coming right along, and they blow it.”

According to the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania, 16 adult mental health courts operate across the state, including in Allegheny, Washington and Fayette counties.

“Without the benefit of a mental health court, people are treated as a criminal instead of someone with a mental illness,” said Jeff Mascara, executive vice president and CEO of Southwestern Pennsylvania Human Services, which manages the Butler County Mental Health Association.

“Treatment is the answer in most of these cases, not incarceration.”

Veterans court costs about $85,000 annually, and drug court costs about $135,000, with about 15 to 20 defendants at a time for each court.

“The question is whether the amount of money you spend on such a small population is worth it. We think so,” Holman said. “If you can save a half-dozen people from themselves, then you've done something good.”

Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or bvidonic@tribweb.com.

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