By Cheryl Splain, KnoxPages.com Reporter
MOUNT VERNON — A simple invitation hopefully will have far-reaching consequences when it comes to connecting criminal justice offenders with the community resources they need to reduce substance abuse, get treatment for mental health issues and, ultimately, reduce repeat criminal offenses.
Common Pleas Court Judge Richard Wetzel has invited representatives of local service agencies to attend his criminal court on Friday morning. Wetzel said the idea behind the invitation is that if the goal is to have offenders engage with treatment providers, it is much easier if he can say “the person you want to talk to is right here” in the courtroom. Although the treatment provider cannot conduct a complete session in the courtroom, he or she can meet the individual and set a followup appointment.
“We can use it in the pre-trial release portion or the community control portion [of proceedings,]” said Wetzel. “We are trying to connect the person with the community service organization as soon as possible.”
Sharon Stockton, chief clinical officer at Behavioral Health Partners, said a BHP representative has started attending the Friday morning court sessions. “It's working really well,” she said. “We are able to refer right then and there, and we can assess what resources are needed.”
Stockton said that engagement is an important part of the process. “If you can meet with that person and establish a relationship, the followup is much higher. It is absolutely going to increase participation rates. I think it will decrease our no-show rate for appointments,” she said.
Stockton said that many offenders have transportation and other difficulties that prevent them from keeping appointments. Treatment providers can use that initial contact to discover those kinds of issues and help the individual make arrangements to reduce those problems.
Kate Salyer, president and chief executive officer of BHP, agreed that establishing relationships and engaging with individuals as soon as possible are vital to sustaining programs and treatment and supports Wetzel's initiative.
“We have been so thrilled with all of the stuff that Judge Wetzel is trying to do,” she said. “You have to be aware that the people coming through the courtroom are people. You have to think about how to help get them connected and keep them engaged. We really appreciate all that Judge Wetzel is doing.”
When asked if he thought a courtroom presence in making initial contact with individuals would help cut down on no-show rates for appointments, Dan Humphrey of TouchPointe said “it would certainly be a strong possibility,” noting that probation officers typically contact his organization. “Certainly our presence might be helpful.”
Humphrey commented on the strong sense of cooperation between treatment providers, and now the court system, in the county. “Whether it be BHP and TouchPointe, TouchPointe and the Freedom Center or BPH and the Freedom Center, there is a lot of collaboration and willingness to work together. Three years ago when we first started [TouchPointe] I sensed a lot of good programs, but nobody was talking. The cooperation is there now, especially with the court system,” he said.
Although Humphrey has not yet attended a Friday morning court session, TouchPointe is no stranger to the courtroom. “We've been going on Friday afternoon, after the courthouse closes,” he said. “We sit in the courtroom and anybody who wants to can come in for a time of prayer. Sometimes [Judge Wetzel] comes in and people come in and pray for him.”