[Harris County] criminal district court judges will vote whether to approve a detailed plan for a new “mental-health court,” a program that promises to cut crime, take a humane stance toward mental illness and save taxpayer money all at the same time. If the judges vote yes — and if Harris County commissioners then budget money for the program — the court could begin operation June 1.The plan, created by 184th State District Court Judge Jan Krocker, a Republican, and more than a hundred mental-health stakeholders, would work like this: If charged with a non-violent felony, someone diagnosed with a significant cognitive impairment or mental illness (schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and the like) would quickly be offered a choice: regular court or mental-health court. Defendants not competent to make the choice aren't eligible; those defendants are either sent to a state hospital or medicated in hopes that they become competent to stand trial.Staffed by a judge, lawyers and caseworkers trained to deal with mental illness, mental-health court would be far less adversarial than regular courts. Both the prosecution and defense would agree that the goal is for the defendant to successfully complete the treatment plan prescribed by the court's psychiatrist, including mental-health treatment and anything else, such as drug-abuse counseling, health care or job training, deemed necessary to straighten out the defendant's tangled life. Court social workers would help find housing and health care.And the court's judge would monitor the defendant's progress — meeting with him or her every week, if necessary — and could punish failures to comply with jail time.
The Harris County proposal suggests starting small in 2010, sending 26 percent of a narrowly defined group of eligible defendants — about 200 a year — to the new mental-health court. More than that, notes the planning team, would overwhelm the already strained patchwork of social services that provide support for Texas' mentally ill. The court, after all, has to be able to refer its defendants somewhere for help.