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Plan to expand mental health courts clears state House committee

Michigan House Republicans

A plan to expand mental health courts in Michigan seems to be gaining momentum in the state Legislature. A state House panel unanimously approved the bill Thursday.

People diagnosed with conditions like severe depression and schizophrenia can avoid jail time and have certain charges erased from public records if they participate in mental health treatment programs under the supervision of a judge.

At the same time, they can get help finding jobs, education opportunities, and housing.

State Rep. Kevin Cotter (R-Mount Pleasant) chairs the state House Judiciary Committee. He says alternative courts get results and could save the state money in the long-term.

“I think, by making that investment on the front-end, we can get people the treatment they need,” Cotter said after his committee reported the bill Thursday.

“Our county jails and prisons should not be warehouses for people that need mental health treatment.”

Rep. Phil Cavanagh (D-Redford Township) is the top Democrat on the committee. He says he’s also a big believer in the alternative court model.

“If we can get assessment beforehand or keep them out of jail, it’s much more likely that the state’s going to save money and we’re going to have productive citizens,” said Cavanagh.

Last month, the State Court Administrative Office released a three-year study of Michigan’s mental health courts. It found participants are far less likely to re-offend than those in the traditional criminal justice system.

The study also shows mental health courts improve participants’ quality of life and their ability to find jobs and education opportunities.

But some advocacy groups say there’s still a number of technical fixes they would like to see made to the legislation.

For example, there’s no definition of what a “mental disorder” is in state law. They say that could make courts vulnerable to lawsuits if an offender is denied an opportunity to participate in the alternative court system.

Cotter says lawmakers will continue to look at that and other issues as the bills are being considered on the state House floor.

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