A look inside Mental Health Court, a specialized treatment program for felony offenders

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Mental Health Court, a specialty court program operated out of Coconino County Superior Court, is nearing the end of its first year of operations.

Starting in July of 2022, certain felony offenders who faced mental health challenges and/or substance abuse issues became eligible to take part in the brand-new specialty treatment court.

In specialty courts like Mental Health Court, offenders are placed on probation, offered resources, tested for drug and alcohol use, treated in a non-adversarial manner, and in exchange for program completion face lesser charges or reduced sentences.

In some cases, people who plead into Mental Health Court will be able to escape incarceration.

The program in Coconino County is one of many that have gained popularity throughout the country. It’s designed specifically to serve people who can be categorized as “high-risk, high-need” by criminal justice professionals — signifying they’re likely to re-offend and need supervision and treatment for mental health and substance-use disorders.

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Right now, there are 12 Mental Health Court participants. The limit is 25.

“We get most of our referrals from the public defender’s office. They are the clients they represent that they feel are appropriate or eligible for our program,” explained Sydney Ciarniello, the Mental Health Court coordinator and clinical liaison. “They go through a screening process. If they are screened eligible, they’ll plead and be sentenced to our program. Then they are on probation and supervised by our whole team.”

Participation in Mental Health Court is voluntary — in no small part because it’s intense.

Mental Health Court is broken into phases. The first phase is between 60 and 90 days long, and it’s designed to immerse the newcomer in the processes and the supports they’ll use in the program to obtain sobriety and stability ideally.

“That’s our most structured phase. So you’re coming to court every single week. You’re seeing probation every single week. There’s a lot of communication with treatment. What you’re seeing is very eyes-on and hands-on in the beginning,” Ciarniello said. “As people move through the phases with their compliance, all that supervision gets reduced. People will go to court every other week, then way at the end of the program they’ll go once a month. As they gain compliance throughout the program, we’ll see them less and less, but it’s designed to be very intense at the beginning.”

The Arizona Daily Sun spoke to a man who opted into Mental Health Court in September of 2022. His name was Brian, and he’s currently in the third phase of the program.

“I got the paperwork and I was like, ‘Wow. That’s a lot. I don’t know if I can do this,’” Brian said.

Ultimately, he said, he decided participating in Mental Health Court was better than going to jail; he braced for the time commitment.

According to Ciarniello, the Coconino County Attorney’s Office’s buy-in and help in negotiating reduced charges has helped to create important incentives for people like Brian.

“That makes it maybe more desirable for people who are saying this may be a lot of work. We try to give them as many carrots to participate, then they generally come around to it more once they’re in the program. Our county attorneys are really great at offering fair plea agreements to the individuals who are going to participate,” Ciarniello said.

As far as coming around to the program goes, Brian is perhaps a prime example. By participating in Mental Health Court, he has a team of people assigned to his case that check in on him and offer him resources and support.

“We have our designated judge who does our calendar every week, we have a designated county attorney from the county attorney’s office, we have a designated public defender. I participate in court. We have our designated probation officer, and then I work with two behavioral health providers and their case managers participate in court with us. We also have participation from Hope Lives, which is a local peer support agency,” Ciarniello said.

As a participant, Brian sees Judge Brent Harris regularly and can see that judge as someone invested in his success and not simply a person in a punitive position. He has a similar relationship with his probation officer and the attorneys on his case.

“As the judge of the Mental Health Court, I have seen the positive impacts the court can have on our communities as a whole. A team approach with tailored support, access to treatment, and compassion for those involved allows us to facilitate healing and empowerment that extends far beyond the courtroom, promoting health, reducing recidivism and victimization, and enhancing community safety,” Harris said.

The structure of Mental Health Court follows national standards for treatment courts, curated by the National Association for Drug Court Professionals. That guidance determined the makeup of the team that works each case.

In Brian’s case, interaction with Hope Lives has been life-altering.

“Going through [Mental Health Court] brought something out of me that I haven’t had when I was a kid — a joy to help people,” he said.

He said he found his calling working with other people who’ve been where he’s been at shelters and at Hope Lives. He wants to continue to work with people struggling with mental health and substance use disorders once he finishes Mental Health Court. 

“My dream is going to be great because that’s going to reward me all the time. It feels good. I am happier with my sobriety working with Mental Health Court and Hope Lives. Working with the homeless and the addicts and the mental health groups, I just want to do my part and share what I have and the knowledge that I have,” Brian said.

Mental Health Court is designed to take about a year and a half to complete, but the timing is flexible.

“We try to have overall guidelines, but we understand that every single person is different, and everybody is going to achieve their goals at different rates,” Ciarniello said

Brian hasn’t graduated yet, but his assigned team of supporters are hopeful that he’ll be among the first success stories for the relatively new specialty court.

Curbing incarceration

“Helping the homeless and addicts kind of keeps me on my toes. I’m not trying to go back to that life. I deal with alcoholics every day and mental health issues. I work every day. I’m tired, but then again, it’s a reward working with them in the peer support program. I have a mission now, to help as many people as I can. Get them into treatment instead of going straight to jail if they get a chance,” Brian said.

According to one study published in 2011 in Justice Quarterly, specialty courts have been found to reduce recidivism — a person’s likelihood to re-offend and become justice-involved again — by 9%. Other studies have found treatment courts can be effective for up to 60% of participants, but methodologies for both the studies and the treatment courts vary widely throughout the country.

The consensus remains, specialty courts generally help curb incarceration rates and keep successful participants more permanently out of the criminal justice system.

“All the research shows that these kinds of treatment courts reduce recidivism. I think it’s very beneficial for the court to employ programs like these — the recovery court, the veterans court. These are the kinds of programs that reduce recidivism among this high-need, high-risk population. It’s extremely beneficial to the court,” Ciarniello said.

Ciarnello started working at the Coconino County Adult Probation Department straight out of college. She spent six years there, supervising a caseload of people who were dealing with serious mental illnesses.

Now she acts as a kind of formal program coordinator, while remaining on the team to support people in recovery from mental illness and substance use.

Her position was created with American Rescue Plan (ARPA) funding.

“We don’t have any additional funding for the mental health court, so these individuals are doing this within their current positions and roles,” said Coconino County Court Administrator Sharon Yates, in reference to people like Judge Harris.

Still, she said she believes the court’s investment of time and resources are ultimately worth it.

“I think it’s beneficial because these individuals are already involved in our criminal justice system, in the court system, so giving them these resources will help them in the long run when they’re not involved in the criminal justice system,” Yates said.

Because the first round of Mental Health Court has not concluded, it’s hard to say whether the team’s hard work is going to pay off.

Not everyone who pleads into Mental Health Court makes it through the program. According to Ciarniello, a few people have already exited Coconino County’s version.

“It works for some people and some people it don’t work for. I really believe you’ve gotta be ready for it, because not everybody is ready for it,” Brian said.

Still, the team in Coconino County remains invested in the people whose lives they hope to change for the better.

“I believe in them. I think they work and I love that we have a court that is giving us the opportunity to run these kinds of programs,” Ciarnello said.

Brian himself is perhaps the most optimistic about the future outcomes of the burgeoning program.

“They’re going to help a lot of people. I hope there’s more people like me,” he said.

Sierra Ferguson can be reached at [email protected].

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