SARPY, Ne (KMTV) — Sarpy County has established Nebraska's first mental health court. The program, also known as the wellness court, will work as an alternative to incarceration.
"It’s going to divert people from the criminal justice system, which means we are not incarcerating them," said Christopher Lathrop, lead attorney for Sarpy County public defender's office. "There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that mental health issues are driving a lot of the criminal justice system right now in Sarpy County and I think it’s becoming more and more talked about."
The wellness court is voluntary and will be available for those who have been charged with a nonviolent felony and have been diagnosed with a serious mental health condition. Offenders will have to plead guilty to their charge and upon completion of the program, the charges will be dropped.
"The treatment court is not a free pass — it’s not a get out of jail free card. Essentially, it’s a phase program that takes a lot of steps and takes a lot on the defendant's part. If it’s not successful, then the charges are not dismissed and the case would proceed as it normally would," Chief Deputy County Attorney Bonnie Moore of Sarpy County said.
The program includes steps like meeting with treatment providers, learning life skills, assessing medication needs, conducting drug tests and establishing a support system.
"It offers them the opportunity to find the tools they need to successfully participate in society as society dictates they need participate. That would be getting them medication or therapy or getting friends and family into their circle of the team approach to helping them stay and maintain their health," Lathrop said.
Officials say the benefits of this program will be seen in many aspects of the community and not just affect offenders.
"Mental illness affects the whole community and it affects the individual as well. When someone is given resources to address their mental illness — that results in less strain to law enforcement, to society, to family members," Moore said.
Lathrop said this program is about compassion and decriminalizing mental health.
"People with mental health issues aren’t criminals. They don’t make choices that lead them down this path. This is something that is a medical condition that needs to be treated," Lathrop said.
The county will begin hearing cases in the wellness court beginning next week.