This program has diverted scores of mentally ill people from jail to treatment. It’s also saved millions

Advocates, judges and lawmakers say it’s time to beef up the program.
Published: Jan. 24, 2023 at 5:58 PM HST|Updated: Jan. 24, 2023 at 8:06 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A program that pushes mentally ill defendants into community treatment instead of jail has saved taxpayers millions of dollars — and it’s still just in the testing phase.

Advocates, judges and lawmakers say the results prove it’s time to beef up the program.

Rescuing a mentally ill person from homelessness can be very difficult, but once they’ve been arrested for a minor, non-violent offense they can be diverted from jail to social services.

That’s exactly the strategy behind the successful pilot.

It’s not uncommon for a homeless person with mental illness to get arrested for a minor crime and end up in jail for weeks without treatment.

District Court Judge Trish Morikawa oversees specialty courts, including one for mentally ill defendants.

She spoke to lawmakers Tuesday about the approach.

“So, for instance, I have mental health clients in my program, that will get picked up on a bench warrant, and they will not get any services from the mental health unit (at OCCC), unless I contact the mental health unit and tell them you need to this person has a diagnosis,” Morikawa told the House Health and Homelessness Committee.

“Our jail system is a great program, you know, they’re doing all that they can, but we’re not equipped for mental health,” Morikawa added.

For the last two years, as part of the pilot project, the courts have been evaluating minor offenders for mental illness and diverting those who are not fit to defend themselves in court to treatment in the community.

The test itself saved millions, the state Judiciary said in a report to the Legislature.

Offenders had fewer jail days and fewer days in the state Hospital. Attorneys and mental health professionals also spent fewer hours contesting over mental illness defenses.

The report said of 107 defendants who received treatment, 86 defendants were released to the community and 76% weren’t arrested again.

House Health and Homelessness Committee Chair Della Belatti said the outcomes prove the concept works.

“When you have a 76% non-recidivism rate, that is excellent,” Belatti said. “So what we need to see is how can we build upon this pilot project.”

Building the project would involve increasing staff in the judiciary and community service providers, improving coordination and tracking of clients and establishing locations where offenders could get a full range of services.

The Institute for Human Services, a longtime homeless services and shelter provider in Hawaii, was among the agencies out overnight this week to count homeless on the street.

Executive Director Connie Mitchell agreed using the leverage of a judge’s oversight and an enforceable treatment order is effective at getting people into housing and getting control of their lives.

“There’s a lot better understanding of what people are up against when they are mentally ill and homeless and I think the judges have been awesome,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell also welcomes the renewed emphasis and resources on homelessness being expressed by Gov. Josh Green and legislative leaders.

“I think that we are in a space right now when there is enough attention and I think politically, I think we are going to see some really dramatic changes,” Mitchell said. “I am very hopeful right now.”

Even if the resources become available, Belatti said, the next politically difficult question is whether homeless mentally ill people who commit more serious crimes should also be diverted from jail.