Missoula Treatment Courts Got Jenks’d
Last December, Kathleen Jenks replaced Donald Let ‘Em Go Louden as head judge for Missoula’s Municipal Court. Now, instead of a judge with an appropriate street handle for being notoriously lenient, we have a judge with a last name that’s become a sort of verb to those facing a more vigorous degree of accountability for their actions—getting Jenks’d.
More accountability for repeat offenders is welcomed by some, and not necessarily seen by this blogger as being a net negative.
But not every repeat offender is effectively dealt with through purely punitive measures.
Fortunately, Missoula has been at the innovative forefront with treatment courts, or co-occurring courts.
Unfortunately, that effort got recently Jenks’d.
Missoula Municipal Court no longer refers offenders to treatment courts designed to help people with substance abuse and mental health issues get their lives back on track before their behavior gets too out of control.
Municipal Court Judge Kathleen Jenks said she made the decision a couple of months ago after realizing that only a single person from Municipal Court was assigned to the last session of the treatment court, formally known as Missoula Co-Occurring Treatment Court.
Among other issues, Jenks said, the city just doesn’t have the resources to devote that much time and money to one person.
“It’s like the Cadillac” of court systems, she said, lauding the goals of treatment courts. “But I don’t know that we can right now, given our volume, afford the Cadillac.”
In response, a recent Missoulian editorial put it like this:
Calling the Missoula Co-Occurring Treatment Court a “Cadillac” option, Jenks explained in a Missoulian news story last Sunday that the city doesn’t have the resources to devote to such a small number of offenders.
These are for the most part non-violent offenders who have agreed to follow a detailed plan to receive a reduced or deferred sentence. These are people whose run-ins with the law stem from their struggles with substance abuse or mental illness. These are people who, given the right kind of help regaining control over their lives, will not commit the same offenses again.
So it’s a matter of devoting sufficient resources now to prevent recurring offenses – or devoting them on an exponential scale in the future. Drug courts, veterans courts and mental health courts will not be the best option for every offender – that doesn’t mean they should be eliminated as options altogether.
I whole-heartedly agree. And so does Theresa Conley, who coordinated the treatment courts until this year. Yesterday, her op-ed was published in the Missoulian. You can read it in full, below the fold.
TREATMENT COURT PROVIDES SAVINGS IN LONG RUN
It is disheartening to read of Judge Kathleen Jenks’ unwillingness to help some of those most vulnerable of society: those who are mentally ill. Her lack of understanding is a disservice to anyone entering Municipal Court. The criminal justice system realized back in the ’90s that you cannot punish mental illness and addiction out of a person. Hence, the development of treatment courts and therapeutic jurisprudence.
In responding to the several points made in the (Sept. 23 Missoulian) article, I will first explain two terms. Co-occurring illness is the presence of two mental illness disorders: an addictive disorder and a mental disorder or a traumatic brain injury. These must be treated simultaneously to facilitate recovery. Treatment courts are designed to help folks whose offense is directly related to their co-occurring illness and who often repeatedly appear in court by linking them to case management and treatment. This linkage is designed to help prevent recidivism. Herein the term treatment court is used in reference to the Missoula Co-Occurring Court as well as the Veterans Treatment Court. Jenks has stopped referrals to both courts.
Jenks’ belief that treatment court costs too much takes a narrow perspective if you total the financial consideration of someone repeatedly cycling through Municipal Court. If Jenks were to tally the repeated costs involved in these cycles – a city attorney, a public defender, the court clerks, the police, the judge’s time and the cost of incarceration – she would easily calculate the cost savings of a person in treatment court is significant. What cannot be tallied, in financial terms, but which should be the driving force behind jurisprudence, is the alleviation of human suffering.
Whether there is one person or 10 in treatment court, referrals from Municipal Court to the treatment court cost the city very little time and money. Most cases are sentenced by the time they enter treatment court; they have worked with their attorney to include it as part of their sentence. The time in treatment court often starts with sentencing, allowing the treatment court jurisdiction for the full six months, oftentimes a year because there is often more than one charge. Instead of being given the usual judicial admonishment of “don’t get into trouble for the rest of your suspended sentence,” these folks agree to participate in the treatment court. That means they are accountable to weekly appearances in treatment court as well as attending various appointments designed to stabilize and treat the person’s co-occurring illness. The referring court doesn’t pay for these services; they are services available in the community.
I did enjoy a sad chuckle at the comparison of the treatment court with a Cadillac. Considering the shoestring budget we have worked with, it is more like a moped. The only paid position is the coordinator/case manager (through the state’s Office of Court Administration). A federal grant is funding a part-time case manager for the next 18 months. The treatment court team members volunteer their lunch hour every Monday because they believe in affecting change in the lives of the folks on their caseloads. Judge Marie Andersen did not spend a “full day in treatment court;” she came in on her day off, approximately three hours once a month.
If Jenks and city officials are truly concerned about folks with co-occurring illness and seek to reduce recidivism then I challenge them: apply for one of the numerous grants designed to increase resources to jurisdictions which feel they are strapped financially yet wish to affect change in their jurisdiction.
“Lock ’em up” is no longer the prevailing attitude of the criminal justice system. Lest you think treatment courts are “soft on crime,” it is an evidence-based practice utilized throughout the criminal justice system in the United States, from city courts to federal courts; except in the Missoula Municipal Court.
I urge city officials and organizations, such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Montana Mental Health Association, veterans’ organizations and Montana Disability Rights, to voice your concerns regarding the decision of this appointed judge.
As one mother stated: treatment court gives me hope that my child will receive treatment instead of criminalizing their mental illness.