Criminal Justice

County mental health program offers second chance for offenders

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Judge Coby Waddill’s courtroom was more crowded than usual at 8:30 a.m. Thursday.

Roughly 30 people in County Criminal Court No. 5 watched Waddill congratulate the first two graduates of the Denton County Mental Health Treatment Court, a program that gives certain offenders with mental illness a chance to have their crime completely wiped from their record.

Since the program started last year, a dozen participants have received consistent counseling and treatment. Some participants are first-time offenders; others have a prior criminal history.

The rigorous screening process and treatment schedule offers more personal contact than a traditional probation sentence, as well as some added flexibility, according to one of Thursday’s graduates.

The Denton Record-Chronicle agreed not to publish the names of the graduates or participants because the information could inadvertently affect their personal life before their case is expunged. Some participants are trying to maintain full-time jobs, graduate college or raise families.

“Since I’ve been here, I’ve definitely improved in school,” a graduate said. “It’s very helpful because I feel as if I had been on straight probation, I definitely wouldn’t have completed that successfully. Because I’ve got obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety, it makes it hard to do some of the other things other [probationers] do.”

The graduate was the first to shake Waddill’s hand and receive his certificate of completion during the ceremony. But perhaps more important, he received a copy of the district attorney’s motion to dismiss his case.

After the motion is signed by a judge and formally approved, the district attorney’s office works with the graduate’s lawyer to expunge the case — a process that essentially erases the arrest.

According to a 2013 mental health report from United Way of Denton County, an estimated 66,000 residents live with mental health issues. But the exact number of local offenders who have a mental illness remains unclear.

Judge Steve Burgess of the 158th Judicial District Court said he initially expressed interest in a mental health treatment program roughly four years ago. Waddill and longtime Denton County probation Officer Tami Russell have since taken the reins.

Working with a team of about 18 county officials and mental health experts, Russell and Waddill stay current on each participant’s progress during bi-monthly meetings.

“There are some people that really haven’t been a problem since they’ve been in the program, working in the program and doing it smoothly and flawlessly,” Waddill said. “There are others where there’s hiccups and hurdles that they’re having to go through.”

County officials select candidates who haven’t been charged with a violent offense. And they typically opt for offenders whose mental illness may have been a factor in the crime.

Once accepted into the program, participants go through three phases of treatment based on their individual needs. The court aims to graduate participants within a year, but that timetable may change based on their progress, Russell said.

“It’s really up to them and how they are working on their issues and all of the programs,” she said.

She also said the program doesn’t have consistent funding and mainly draws from individual donations to the court and the local United Way chapter. But offering effective long-term help makes it all worthwhile, Waddill said.

“This is something they can put in their rear-view mirror,” Waddill said.

JULIAN GILL can be reached at 940-566-6882 and via Twitter at @juliangillmusic.

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