Monday, February 19, 2018

Gregg County Mental Health Docket stopping revolving jail door

By Glenn Evans
May 17, 2015 at 4:04 a.m.

Judge Becky Simpson speaks with a partisipant in the Jail Diversionary Program, on Wednesday May 6, 2015, during the monthly Mental Health Docket in the Gregg County Court at Law N0. 1 at the Gregg County Courthouse. The goal of the program is to prevent mentally ill people from going back and forth to  jail.  (Michael Cavazos/News-Journal Photo)

Applause broke out in a Longview courtroom on a recent Wednesday. It happens regularly on a monthly docket designed to keep people with mental illnesses out of jail.

"I'm going to sign this dismissal for Reagan — he did it all," Gregg County Court at Law No. 2 Judge Becky Simpson declared to some 25 or 30 people attending her May 6 Mental Health Docket.

The defendant — who appeared with his mother and declined to be identified — joined more than 100 misdemeanor offenders who have successfully completed a jail diversionary program Simpson brought here a little more than five years ago. Its aims are to free up jail beds, clear other dockets and save the county money.

Reagan and his mother both got cupcakes from the bench.

Simpson called her next case, Jacinda, a 20-year-old woman arrested almost a year ago on misdemeanor assault and resisting arrest charges. The judge asked the defendant if she was working.

"Good for you," Simpson replied to news of a job. "And how's this last month been?"

Jacinda said she had worked out her Social Security benefits and now has a job and an apartment. She also said her child's father was trying to win custody.

The judge looked her up and down.

"Your blue jeans are not appropriate for court, because they have holes in them," Simpson lightly scolded. "It's really important that you dress appropriately for success. ... You've got a job, everything is working for you. So, good job. We'll see you next time."

Nearby, defense attorneys Brandt Thorson and Molly Larison spoke with clients or prosecutor Assistant District Attorney John Roberts. Also present was Branden Johnson, the court's liaison from mental health authority Community HealthCore.

The team, along with probation specialists and other local defenders, are working to help people with mental illnesses who often pass from home or the streets, to jail, and back again — and again.

"I was seeing the same people for offenses of criminal trespass over and over," Simpson said. "There was a revolving cycle of people that I knew had mental illness that were spending their lives in jail."

It's working. Of 140 cases allowed into the diversionary program since May 2010, all but 33 have resulted in successful, completed, individualized probation periods to both stave off jail terms and prevent them from drawing new charges down the road.

Simpson's poster child, a formerly homeless man named Stacy Rollins, was conspicuously absent from her court this month. Simpson said Rollins spent more than 300 days a year behind bars for four years before embarking on the diversionary track.

"And he's not been back in jail in four years," she said Saturday.

Simpson said she's not the only judge who has a mental health docket, but they are rare.

"Other courts are doing it," she said. "Dallas has a Mental Health Court. So, it is a problem statewide."

The local program also costs taxpayers nothing, other than daily court operations and probation expenses they already fund.

The docket does run a little less formally than Simpson's regular, criminal court proceedings or her Child Protective Services caseload.

"You have to adopt yourself," she said. "You have to be the type of judge that particular person needs you to be. The visual results and just how happy they are is amazing."

Back in court, she asked a defendant why he was holding his chest.

"What's going on?" the judge asked Leo, arrested in January on charges of evading arrest and threatening.

Leo rubbed his chest and fanned his face while the judge looked over his monthly report.

"Take a deep breath," she said. "Because you're not in trouble at all — this is all good."

Shifting his weight foot-to-foot, Leo said the "big, white pill" always causes that reaction. Simpson told him to be sure his doctor hears that news.

"I started to shoot myself with a bullet," the defendant suddenly confessed.

"Leo. You are not going to do that," Simpson told him sternly. "You are not going to do that. Branden? Has this been a good month for him?"

Johnson said that it had.

Simpson pointed to Leo's case worker, Demetria Anderson, whom he knew only as "Mrs. Ma'am."

"Your case worker, Mrs. Ma'am, is going to set you up with a doctor's appointment," she said. "I know you want to be in this program. You want this charge dismissed, so no-no-no-no-no."

Earlier, a brighter moment as what appeared to be a new man stepped up to the bench. Ricky, charged with family violence, was a far cry from the confused looking, lion-haired man in his mug shot from his February arrest.

"You are the most significant transformation on this docket of any person," Simpson complimented him. "Now, you're just on a medication regimen."

"It's going good," Ricky replied. "I feel a lot better."

"How's your thinking?" Simpson asked.

"Strange," he replied, adding he'd been helping his mother around the house.

"Do you like the way you are now?" the judge asked. "Do you remember what you were like in jail and how you were all messed up mentally?"

He said he did.

"You are just on a fast-track for success," Simpson said. "I just hope after this program is over you never get off your meds again."



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