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Williamson County judge aims to expand mental health court

Austin American-Statesman - 2/15/2020

ROUND ROCK Shortly after Williamson County District Judge Donna King started her job in 2015, she heard a case in which a man accused of violating a protective order had significant mental health issue.

The prosecutor and the defense lawyer had both recommended probation for him, said King, who presides over the 26th District Court.

King said she thought he needed a lot more supervision than being required to check in with a probation officer, but there were no other options.

"In a way you are setting people up for failure if you don't understand they have special needs; you are not facilitating their rehabilitation," King said.

So last year she started a pilot docket in her court for 22 felony offenders with serious mental issues to work with a team to set up a treatment plan for them.

Now King is applying for more than $100,000 state grant to hire a case manager and a part-time court coordinator so she can expand the docket, which is focused on keeping repeat felony offenders with mental health issues out of jail.

She said she expects to find out in September whether she will receive the grant.

Statistics from a similar pilot program in Travis County showed that people who successfully completed it were significantly less likely to be arrested again.

King has had some initial success with her pilot program, she said, because two people in it have stayed out of jail by becoming stabilized on medicine.

"They are holding down jobs, they have stable housing and it's incredible to see that," King said.

The treatment team that King has assembled includes lawyers, the local mental health authority Bluebonnet Trails Community Services and mentors from the local nonprofit Pavilion to provide peer counseling.

She also has found treatment facilities run by the mental health officials in El Paso and Lubbock where she can send people, King said.

Even though the mental health docket is only held once every three weeks, she said, the offenders are constantly supervised by caseworkers at Bluebonnet and others on their treatment team.

Williamson County District Attorney Shawn Dick said there were a significant amount of people in the county's criminal justice system with mental health issues.

The idea for the mental health court is to "get all the people who speak the same language in the same courtroom on the same docket, so everyone understands what services are available," Dick said.

He said it is designed to focus on people with severe mental illnesses, including schizophrenia and serious bipolar issues.

"We take the higher risk people because they need the most help," said Natalie McKinnon, the chief prosecutor for King's court.

She said some of the people in the pilot program have ended up back in jail because they did not want help. But others did, McKinnon said, including one person who did not like taking a daily pill for their mental illness and is instead getting a monthly shot.

"They are now out in the community functioning at the greatest levels they can," McKinnon said.

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