The people who appear before Kern County Superior Court Judge Susan Gill every Thursday afternoon are not easy people.
Some are loud, argumentative, spacey, or all of the above. Others, so deathly frightened of the world, their eyes are permanently fixed on the floor. And, yeah, some might even smell bad.
“The mentally ill can be challenging,” Gill said.
As the judge overseeing Kern’s newly created “mental health court,” Gill would know.
Every Thursday afternoon, she reviews cases of mentally ill people charged with serious crimes with defense attorneys, prosecutors, probation and mental health case managers.
If she’s frustrated by the challenges posed by those appearing in the STAR (Sustained Treatment and Recovery) court, she doesn’t show it.
In fact, she seems to relish setbacks as opportunities to find new ways to help clients (no one calls them defendants). The goal is to keep them from reoffending.
In one case, a young man with heavy facial tattoos had been kicked out of his sober living home and missed several appointments with his doctors and probation officer. Those are all conditions of his probation for a felony burglary case he picked up in October.
A quick peek at his record shows repeated arrests going back 15 years mostly for property and drug crimes. I’m not using his name because mental illness still places an unfair stigma on sufferers.
“You’ve had a rough go of it recently, haven’t you?” Gill asked the man at a status hearing this past Thursday.
Though she could have kicked him out of the program or sent him to jail for a few days, Gill instead looked for a way to re-engage him in his own treatment.
“Because you brought yourself back in, I’m going to give you a pat on the back. It’s not going to be like that every time,” she warned. “We are all committed to your success, but you need to do your part as well.”
Gill ordered him to appear before her again this coming Thursday and assigned him a writing project: an essay examining why he backslid and why he came back into the program.
No, she won’t grade for spelling and grammar, Gill told the client.
“I want to make sure you’ve really thought about this,” she told him.
That’s one of the keys to STAR court: clients have to understand and accept that they have a mental illness, that it’s causing them to act outside the law and they have to want to do what it takes to get well.
It’s not an easy out.
In fact some folks have looked at STAR court’s 18- to 36-month program with its hyper-intensive supervision (court and probation officer meetings once a week, required attendance at group and individual counseling, doctor appointments, classes, etc.) and said “no thanks.”
Oh, and if you mess up, there’s no guarantee you won’t go to jail or prison anyway.
Another major key to STAR court is services, services services.
As part of its evaluation of clients, Mental Health also determines what they need to succeed. Housing? They got that covered. Transportation to court, counseling sessions, etc.? A case manager will shuttle them where they need to go. Food stamps? Medi-Cal? Yes, counselors will help with that.
On the day I was in court, the STAR team even made a calendar of appointments for a client and Judge Gill suggested she tape it to her wall.
“There are so many practical things that are difficult to do when you’re suffering from mental illness,” said Deputy Director of Mental Health Brad Cloud.
The STAR team’s goal is to remove obstacles for clients and then teach them how to get around obstacles on their own.
For those who are willing to try STAR court, it’s been a blessing, said defense attorney Monica Bermudez.
“I’m from Tulare County where we had a very active mental health court,” she said. “So I was excited to see it start up here.”
She quibbled with some of the limitations of Kern’s court, such as only accepting clients who’ve committed a felony and disallowing clients with certain prior convictions, such as sexual crimes.
Yes, yes, yes, there are limitations, said Assistant District Attorney Scott Spielman.
Remember, this is an out-of-custody program and the court must consider public safety, he said.
And the exclusions aren’t all absolute.
“Like terrorist threats,” he said. “That can be a felony and it’s a strike. But making terrorist threats happens a lot with mentally ill people and typically their family knows they’re not serious.”
In that case, an exception could be made to bring that person into the STAR court, he said.
While eligibility for Kern’s mental health court is narrow, Spielman said, it’s broader than others around the state.
Overall Bermudez’s concerns were small compared to her praise for the program.
“I have a client in the program now and he’s doing extremely well, taking his meds and going to all his counseling. It’s really helped his marriage and his parenting.”
The atmosphere in STAR court is much less adversarial, she said.
Clients who’ve followed all their requirements for the week get called out by name and stand for a round of applause. Their names are entered into a raffle and if they win they get gift cards for movies or food.
“It’s kind of hokey,” Gill said of the applause and raffles.
Maybe. But it’s also kind of “Awesome!” as Bermudez described it.
Her client won movie tickets on his first trip to court.
“They’re doing something right and the court’s acknowledging that. It’s a good step forward.”
Read archived columns by Lois Henry at Bakersfield.com/henry.
Lois Henry appears on “First Look with Scott Cox” every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM and 96.1 FM from 9 to 10 a.m. The show is also broadcast live on www.bakersfield.com. You can get your 2 cents in by calling 842-KERN.