First Year Of Harris County Mental Health Court Gets Good Review From Judge

Harris County has established a special weekly court to deal with defendants who have a mental illness. The idea is to treat the illness that leads to crimes, and keep people from cycling in and out of jail unnecessarily.

 

Dolger knew she had bipolar disorder, and she was even taking medications to treat it.

What she didn’t know was that when a so-called friend introduced her to meth, it would override her medications and cause her to relapse.

During manic phases, Dolgner started shoplifting at Target and Wal-Mart.

“And I wasn’t just putting a few things in my purse.  I would fill the basket full of items and joyfully walk out the door. My judgment was completely impaired.”

After her third arrest, the 38-year-old was facing a felony charge and two years in state prison.

Dolgner knew the sentence could destroy her ties with her three children.

So she applied to transfer her case to Harris County’s new Mental Health Court.

(Judge enters courtroom and bailiff says, “All rise…”).

Judge Jan Krocker presides over the mental health court.

“I just love watching people get well.”

Krocker gave Dolgner probation, but put her on a strict program of substance abuse treatment, psychiatric appointments, and drug tests. 

If Dolgner fails to comply, she could be sent back to prison.

“A lot of times in regular court you’re just a number and you go in front of the judge and it’s like, ‘Okay, next! Okay, next! Okay, next … ’ Here in this court she really cares about you as a person and your story and gets you back onto the right track. And I’ve been sober for over eight months.”

The court meets once a week.

Some defendants come straight from jail and appear in orange jumpsuits. But most come from home or treatment centers, ready to report on their therapeutic progress.

Krocker dismisses the notion that Mental Health Court offers an easier path through the justice system. 

“A lot of people don’t want to come into the court. It’s a whole lot quicker and easier to do six months in the Harris County jail, get two-for-one credit and be out in 90 days, than to go through treatment, and going to all those doctor’s appointments, and substance abuse (treatment). I mean it’s hard, it’s the hard choice.”

A quarter of the jail inmates in Harris County are being treated for mental illness.

And ninety percent of those inmates have cycled through the jail before.

Krocker says the Mental Health Court could help put a dent in that problem, save taxpayers money, and actually heal people instead of just punish them.

“We’ve always, in Harris County, been very good at sending people away for a long time. But it took us a while to really learn the other end of the spectrum, which is — it’s really hard work to rehabilitate people and it takes a lot of patience. And if you’re going to have a safe community and a great community, you have to work it from both ends. So that’s what we’re trying to do.”

The Mental Health Court is still in its first year of operation, so there’s no hard data yet on how the defendants do when compared to those in regular criminal courts.

But Judge Krocker says most of the 60 defendants in her court are doing well and fulfilling all the terms of their treatment and probation.


Recently, Judge Krocker told the Houston Chronicle that she fears incoming District Attorney Mike Anderson and the court’s head administrative judge want to shut down the Mental Health Court, although Anderson previously has expressed his support for the idea. Funding is up for renewal in January.

Bio photo of Carrie Feibel

Carrie Feibel

Health & Science Reporter

Carrie Feibel is KUHF's health and science reporter. She comes to Houston Public Radio after ten years as a print reporter...