‘Small victories’ in Mental Health Court changing lives
MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (AP) — Court is normally a solemn occasion filled with nervous people avoiding eye contact with the judge. It’s not filled with smiles, cake and cheers, but each Friday morning that changes.
Welcome to Rutherford County Judge Barry Tidwell’s mental health court, where people gather weekly to check their progress with the judge, who seems more like an old pal than someone ready to dish out a sentence.
The unseen barrier between judge and offender dissolves, and stories of pets, weekend outings and personal relationships are exchanged.
“A lot of times these individuals are hesitant to open up and trust others,” Tidwell said shortly after the court was founded in 2017. “I want them to trust the court that they can be up-front and honest.”
Typically, people don’t want a judge to know their name, but that’s not the case here.
On Friday, Feb. 22, the courtroom on the sixth floor of the Rutherford County Judicial Center was packed with court clients, judges, county officials and family members.
It was the two-year anniversary of Tidwell’s mental health court. Tidwell wasn’t able to attend the celebration, so General Sessions Judge Ben Hall McFarlin filled in for him.
One by one, as people heard their names called, they approached McFarlin. But instead of naming the charges people were facing, he asked how they were doing in their recovery. Most people answered affirmatively; they were making good progress since entering Tidwell’s recovery court.
When it was confirmed that they were progressing in their treatment, McFarlin offered them a “reward” from a giant basket of goodies overflowing with Valentine’s candy, salty snacks and sugary treats. The room erupted in applause and cheers as people returned to their seats on the other side of the bar.
Intimate everyday moments were discussed. One man’s mother had a medical procedure that morning. A mother shared she was crocheting a blanket for her daughter.
“It’s been a pleasure to follow what has been done with this program,” McFarlin said.
Participants are Rutherford and Cannon county residents who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, and severe, chronic depression facing non-violent misdemeanor or felony charges. According to the county, studies have shown this population of people are subject to longer jail terms and experience higher rates of recidivism. Those with less serious offenses who don’t possess a great danger to themselves and others are diverted to the mental health court. The average duration for a participant is 12 months.
So far, at least 56 clients have enrolled in mental health court. Thirteen have graduated, and only two people have re-offended. That’s an 85 percent success rate.
“This is something the county has needed for a long time,” Rutherford County Sheriff Mike Fitzhugh said. “These small victories are going to lead to huge victories.”
The sheriff said people in need of mental health services often wind up in his jail, and that’s not helping anyone.
About 45 percent of people held at the county jail have mental health disorders, Trey King, director of recovery court and probation services for the county, said in 2017.
Mental health court conditions are less expensive to taxpayers than housing inmates at the county jail for at least $63 per day. The cost to the county can even be in the $200 to $300 per day range when including mental health medications, King said.
Rickey Alan Reed successfully graduated from Tidwell’s mental health court and has stayed out of trouble since. Reed struggled with addiction to drugs and alcohol and found the help he needed when he applied for mental health court, he said during the celebration.
At his lowest point, the former youth pastor broke into homes and stole a police cruiser.
“I did a lot of stuff in the past I’m ashamed of,” Reed told the room. “Addiction will keep you longer than you want it to and take you further than you want to go.”
He said before entering Tidwell’s program, he tried his hand at various recovery efforts but never fully committed. Reed went through the motions, told the counselors what they wanted to hear, all while planning his next fix. That changed with the help of Tidwell and those affiliated with the program.
“They’re not phonies,” Reed said, referring to the program workers. “They really want to help. ... There is hope when you make the right decision.”
Scott Broden contributed to this report.
Information from: The Daily News Journal, http://www.dnj.com