Sarpy County to launch state’s first mental health court

(Sarpy County, NE) -- Sarpy County says they have established Nebraska’s first mental health court.

In a release, the county called the court an, "innovative problem-solving court designed to focus on people with mental illnesses who are facing felony charges." The county says the goal of the new Wellness Court is to, "stabilize and treat participants’ underlying mental health issues as an alternative to incarceration."

District Court Judge Stefanie Martinez, who will preside over the court, says, “We’re seeing more and more people enter the criminal justice system who have severe mental health diagnoses. Because of a lack of resources, we’re incarcerating those individuals instead of addressing the treatment they need. We’re extremely grateful for and hopeful about this opportunity to assist these individuals in our community. This wouldn’t be possible without the support of the Nebraska Legislature, the Nebraska Supreme Court or Sarpy County.”

According to the release, in 2016 the Nebraska Legislature broadened the state’s definition of problem-solving courts, which made it possible for local jurisdictions to create dedicated mental health courts. In 2020, the legislature approved funding for the Nebraska Supreme Court to create a pilot program. The Supreme Court then established a set of standards, which Sarpy County says they used to develop specific policies and procedures.

“We are proud to serve as the pilot site for Wellness Court,” Chief Deputy Sarpy County Attorney Bonnie Moore said. “This is about giving people resources and helping them build skills so they can manage their mental health and don’t commit crimes again.”

Wellness Court is voluntary and will be available to people diagnosed with a serious mental illness who are charged with a nonviolent felony. Participants have to pass a competency evaluation, then plead guilty to the charge. Participants will meet regularly with the judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, treatment providers, probation officers and law enforcement. The program will include stabilizing the participant, ensuring they have stable housing, avoid drugs and alcohol, and connect with various treatment and community services. Programming may include support from family members and peer-support specialists.

“We’re building a team of people around that person and finding the medications and therapies that work for them, and making sure they’re following through on treatments,” said Chris Lathrop, a division lead for the Sarpy County Public Defender’s Office. “Sometimes these members of our community never get any kind of affirmation for the positive things they’re doing in their life. Here they’ll get positive feedback for their good behaviors.”

Participants do not have to complete the program within a certain amount of time, as long as they continue to make progress and cooperate with long-term services and support. As with other problem-solving courts, such as Sarpy County Drug Court, the court delays the person’s sentencing. Participants who successfully complete the program can withdraw their guilty plea, and the County Attorney’s Office will dismiss the charge. If a participant violates the terms or conditions of the court, they can be removed from the program and will proceed to sentencing.

“This is a huge opportunity for participants to have charges removed from their record,” said Creston Ashburn, Sarpy County’s Drug Court Coordinator who will also oversee Wellness Court. “I’ve kept in contact with Drug Court graduates who are pushing 15 years of sobriety. Our goal with Wellness Court is similar: to see individuals manage their mental health, to be able to obtain employment and to become successful.”

Sarpy County has started screening potential participants and will launch the court in February. The effort builds on the county’s long history of focusing on mental health, which includes a mental health diversion program created by the Sarpy County Attorney’s Office in 2014, and the Omaha metro’s first dedicated mental health law enforcement unit, which the Sarpy County Sheriff’s Office formed in 2018.

“Sarpy County Wellness Court fits with our goal of decriminalizing mental illness, and we have a committed team in place to make this exciting initiative successful,” Sarpy County Board Chairman Don Kelly said. “Wellness Court is the kind of programming that addresses the root cause of crime, while ensuring accountability through regular progress check-ins. We look forward to Wellness Court creating better outcomes for individuals, families and our communities.”

People interested in volunteering as a peer-support specialist can contact Creston Ashburn at 402-593-2132.

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