Mental Health Court seeks permanent funding - KPLC 7 News, Lake Charles, Louisiana

Mental Health Court seeks permanent funding

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Since the horrible slaughter of children and teachers in Connecticut and other mass shootings, mental health is moving from the back burner to the front burner in many areas.

And a local judge who spearheaded what's called Mental Health Court here, in the 14th Judicial District, said now is no time to let it fail for lack of funding.

There are no simple answers on identifying and dealing with those who might be capable of mass violence. But there is increasing interest and concern about making mental health services more readily available to those who need them -- and to prevent those suffering mental illness from simply being thrown in jail. 

Nearly two years ago, Judge Robert Wyatt spearheaded effort to establish Mental Health Court. It's a way to get people help that in some cases is dramatically changing lives.

"The emphasis in mental health court is to get people out of jail, that really don't need to be there, that are probably there because of lack of treatment facilities, family problems, people that can be dealt with outside of the incarceration system, people that just need to be re-directed," said Wyatt.

He said such people don't need to be dealt with, necessarily, in the criminal system.

"They've come into contact with the criminal system because of their condition, but that can be remedied  other than incarceration. We're finally learning, hopefully, that you can't just throw people in jail and expect them to come out of jail and be fixed. Jail doesn't fix people," said Wyatt.

Dick Tanous is the director of Coalition Services. He said intervention at the right time can help people with mental illness become productive citizens.

"We have some who have been arrested 20 times who, since they've been in the program for a year and a half, have never been arrested. We have one getting ready to be a supervisor who never could hold a job before. I mean how great is that?" said Tanous.

He said it costs taxpayers less money when people with mental illness are dealt without being put in jail.

"When you consider, as we look back on the criminal history of some of these people, they've been in and out of jail 20 times. That's a tremendous burden on the criminal justice system," he said.

Mental Health Court was born of tragedies such as the shooting death of Trent Buckins, a man with a long history of mental illness who wound up being shot by police. But at this point, it has no permanent funding source and therefore has no secure future.

"We are really running this on a shoe string budget," said Wyatt. "$150,000 is not chicken feed, but for what we're providing, I believe we're getting the bang for the buck here."

They hope public concern will eventually lead to a permanent funding source for Mental Health Court and services.

Wyatt has been serving in family court for the last two years. After the first of the year he moves back into the regular rotation in state district court.

Family Court Judges Lilynn Cutrer and Judge Guy Bradberry will continue to handle juvenile and child protection cases. But other family and domestic cases will now be spread among the remaining seven judges.

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