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Federal grant creates Alternative Sentencing Court in Topeka

Initiative provides treatment for misdemeanor defendants with mental health issues

By Bryan Thompson | November 10, 2014

The City of Topeka is launching an effort to provide treatment, instead of jail time, for people whose misdemeanor crimes are linked to mental illness.

The city will use a $91,000 federal grant awarded through the Kansas Criminal Justice Coordinating Council to fund an Alternative Sentencing Court next year.

Anyone charged with a misdemeanor or traffic offense will be eligible for the new program if they’ve been diagnosed with a severe mental illness. To avoid jail time, they’ll have to complete a one-year program that includes treatment and drug testing. They must appear for all court hearings and pay their court fees and treatment costs.

Rick Cagan, who heads the Kansas chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said the program should reduce pressure on the Shawnee County Jail and help keep people out of Osawatomie State Hospital.

“You know, jail is not the place to get treatment for your mental illness,” he said. “That, ideally, is a community-based function. It’s more cost-effective at the community-based level, and of course people are getting better quality treatment than they would if they were incarcerated.”

Topeka officials say a large percentage of defendants in municipal court cases have mental health issues. They think that providing appropriate services will help them live successfully in the community, reduce repeat offenses and create a safer community.

According to Cagan, the Johnson County district attorney's office has a long-standing diversion program for cases involving mental illness that’s been successful. He thinks other counties with jails full of inmates with mental health issues should consider this approach.

“When you’ve got counties that are considering expanding their jail facilities because of the mental health population, I think alternatives such as mental health courts and other diversion programs are a much better way to go,” Cagan said.

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