Chief justice says Nebraska court system lacks the funds to establish mental health courts

LINCOLN — The chief justice of the Nebraska Supreme Court said Thursday that his agency lacks the funds to establish a special court to handle offenders with mental illnesses.

Douglas County is among the counties seeking a “mental health court,” which is a less-expensive — and, many say, more effective — alternative to prison, which have become de facto mental health institutions. More than half of all inmates have some mental health diagnosis, and as many as 30 percent have serious mental illnesses, prison officials have said.

Chief Justice Mike Heavican said the court system has “no extra resources” to establish mental health courts, and had to transfer about $1.2 million within the agency last year just to keep afloat the existing problem-solving courts that deal with drug offenders, military veterans and young adults.

Efforts to establish a mental health court have been halted, the judge said during his annual State of the Judiciary speech to the Nebraska Legislature.

Heavican added that Douglas County and other urban counties currently lack enough judges to take on the time-consuming supervision needed to further expand problem-solving courts.

A bill to add another district court judge in Douglas County has been introduced by State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha. He said there are many advantages of such specialty courts.

“Any time we can invest money in problem-solving courts, we’re saving money at corrections,” Lathrop said.

The cost of housing someone in prison is about $38,627 per year, compared to $2,865 for handling a case in a problem-solving court, Heavican told lawmakers Thursday.

In a problem-solving court, a judge and probation officers closely monitor an offender, making sure they submit to drug tests and stay off drugs, and making sure they keep jobs and take other steps to become a productive citizen.

Such courts also help relieve overcrowding in state prisons, which ranks second highest in the country. A mental health court would work to ensure an offender is taking medications, attending counseling and taking other steps to address their issues.

Drug courts now exist in all 12 of the state’s judicial districts, and participation in such courts has doubled since 2008. Last year, special veterans courts were launched in Douglas and Lancaster Counties that focus on the special needs of military veterans who commit crimes.

State court officials estimate that it would cost about $660,000 a year to establish one new mental health court. That pays for extra probation and support staff, as well as training and testing expenses, they said. National studies indicate that graduates of problem-solving courts have a much lower rate of repeat crimes.

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