Bar News - August 11, 2006
Court’s Corner: Program Opts for Treatment, Not Jail for Mentally Ill Defendants
By: Andrew Wolfe
This article was reprinted with permission from the Nashua Telegraph. It was previously published in The Telegraph on July 24, 2006, and the original article is archived at
Hon. James Leary
After three years on the bench at Nashua District Court, Judge James Leary began to realize that some of the people who came before him were not like the others.
Like many defendants, they were frequent flyers through the criminal courts. They got arrested repeatedly for the same petty offenses, and punishment didn’t seem to deter them.
“It was abundantly clear to me that [these defendants] had serious mental illnesses and didn’t belong in jail, but in treatment,” Leary said.
Leary wasn’t the only one who’d recognized that there might be better ways to deal with such people. He began working with a “a very grass-roots group,” including representatives from Community Council, Southern New Hampshire Services, the Hillsborough County Academy Program and others.
They developed a program called Community Connections aimed at steering mentally ill people away from jail and into treatment. Community Council has been running the program on a pilot basis since February, and starting August 1, the new program [was put into] place throughout the Nashua District Court’s jurisdiction.
“Frequently, people who have mental illness commit what are perceived to be crimes by virtue of the dysfunction of their illness,” said Carol Farmer, Community Council’s associate executive director. “The best thing for that is not to lock them up somewhere.
“We’re there to help people who just because of their illness exercise some bad judgment,” she said. “Before there wasn’t an alternative, it was, ‘You committed the crime, you go to jail.’”
Leary and other organizers [recently] conducted an introduction to the program for local defense lawyers, prosecutors and others.
The idea, Leary said, is that people at every stage of the criminal justice process, from the police and bail commissioners to the judges, can identify people who have been charged with a crime as a result of mental illness.
By way of example, Leary recalled the case of a young man accused of striking his mother. He was arrested on a simple assault domestic violence charge, and his parents showed up at his arraignment, begging for his release.
The young man was mentally ill, they told Leary, but had been off his medication. He would only get worse without it.
“He was doing what the voices told him to do, and he was off his meds,” Leary said. “These are people who don’t belong in jail. These are people who need treatment.”
Community Connections will be aimed at people who commit relatively minor, misdemeanor offenses—disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, trespassing or simple assault—as a result of their illnesses, Leary said.
“Mental illness alone is not enough. It has to be that the mental illness caused or significantly contributed to the acts,” he said.
Once candidates for the program have been identified and are willing to participate, Community Council will assess people to decide whether they actually suffer from mental illness, and determine what sort of treatment they need. People who commit more serious offenses, or seem likely to pose a threat to others, will not be considered for the program, Farmer and Leary said.
“Obviously, we want to make sure there’s no danger,” in releasing a person to treatment, Farmer said.
Community Council will work with the defendant’s lawyer and prosecutors to draw up a treatment plan, which will be filed in court as part of the case against the defendant. In many cases, the charges will be filed without any finding of guilt and then dismissed so long as the person follows the treatment plan. In other cases, a person might admit guilt and follow the treatment plan as a condition of a deferred or suspended jail sentence, Leary said.
“This is part of an almost nationwide movement toward what’s called treatment courts,” Leary said. “It’s not diversion. We’re not keeping them out of the court system.”
“This is sort of a treatment probation,” Farmer said.
Community Council will monitor compliance with the treatment plans, and defendants will be brought back to court only if they fail to follow their plans, Leary said.
The group got a $24,781 grant from the United Way to cover the cost of the program for six months, Leary said. Most of the money will cover staffing expenses, he said. Community Council has applied for a $250,000 Department of Justice grant, which would keep the program going for another 30 months, and allow it to expand into the juvenile court, Leary said.
The program will include someone to gather data, in hope of showing that the program reduces arrests and incarceration of mentally ill defendants, Leary said.
“We’re not going to solve crime with this. That’s not what we’re proposing,” Leary said. “What we’re hoping to be able to save is the expense of jail, and to decrease the number of these types of individuals coming before the court.”