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Jonathan Cooper Reports on Mental Health Courts in Knox County

In April, 2023, founding partner Jonathan Cooper reported in DICTA, the monthly publication of the Knoxville Bar Association, on a new Mental Health Court in Knox County (article below). As a criminal defense attorney, Cooper is well aware of the magnitude and effect mental illness has on the criminal justice system. Appointed to both the exploratory and advisory committees for this therapeutic court, he has sought to create a more just process for those suffering from mental illness.

“There is no place where mental illness is more broadly on display than in the criminal justice system”, says Cooper. “Therapeutic courts like Knox County’s Mental Health Court offer the opportunity to break the cycle of crime and incarceration by providing services to those challenged with mental health disorders rather than incarcerating them.”

His article is memorialized here.

Knox County Puts New Mental Health Court in Motion

You see them in a lime green jump suit, shuffling down the back hallways in shackles. With no means for bail, they remain in the custody of our Sheriff until their case is resolved. That these defendants suffer from some type of mental health issue is rarely in dispute. The problem is figuring out what to do with them. Even when there is a diagnosis, the criminal justice system is simply not set up to either locate services or connect these services with persons with mental health issues.

Until now. Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs has appointed an exploratory committee to study the feasibility of a mental health court in Knox County. “Sadly, mental health issues often play a role in perpetuating the cycle of incarceration. Not only will [a mental health] court allow us to identify individuals in need and connect them with services that will help them, but disrupting that cycle of incarceration means less crime and fewer victims,” he said.

What exactly is a mental health court? Mental Health Courts are specialized court dockets designed for individuals with serious mental illnesses and other related psychiatric disorders that utilize a problem solving model as opposed to the traditional criminal court processing. These courts are designed to serve as an alternative to incarceration by addressing the underlying issues that led to an individual’s arrest through judicially supervised treatment plans developed by a team of court staff and mental health professionals.

Using dedicated case workers and treatment providers, these courts offer a better alternative to traditional criminal justice methods. “I have seen multiple examples of people whose mental illness was so severe that they were catatonic and covered in bugs and feces only to be able to watch them lead productive, happy, and healthy lives when given appropriate medical care and treatment,” says Knox County Public Defender Eric Lutton.

By stabilizing and safely extricating defendants with diagnosed mental health issues from the Knox County Jail or Detention Facility, the burden and disproportionate cost of these high-need inmates is lifted from our Sheriff and County. “Research continuously shows that U.S. prisons and jails house a disproportionate number of people with mental health issues. . . . [T]hese facilities are not equipped to treat or support incarcerated individuals in a way that reduces the likelihood they’ll return to jail,” points out Mayor Jacobs.

They also stand to make our community safer, notes Knox County District Attorney Charme Allen. “A mental health court has the potential to provide better access to resources and services to individuals who need them and provide prosecutors with additional tools to help maintain public safety.”

Mayor Jacobs continues, “I once heard someone describe the criminal justice system as a highway leading people toward incarceration. Following that analogy, the Mental Health Court acts as an exit ramp of sorts by connecting justice-involved individuals living with mental illness and community-based treatment and support services that encourage recovery. Ultimately, the Mental Health Court seeks to reduce the frequency of arrests and duration of incarceration for people with mental illness, which should improve court operations, minimize strain on our facilities, and increase public safety and quality of life.” Spearheaded by Knox County Clerk Mike Hammond and his office, the Mayor’s exploratory committee was made up of court stakeholders: judges, our District Attorney and Public Defender, and the local bar, as well as highly trained and experienced employees of Helen Ross McNabb. The group researched successful courts in other jurisdictions and had conversations with mental health court administrators and judges from various jurisdictions, including Nashville, New York, Miami, Chattanooga, and Bradley County.

The Court will be primarily funded by the State, which has already extended an initial contract, recently approved by the Knox County Commission. The exploratory committee has transformed into an Advisory Board and is now working on submitting to the Tennessee Department of Mental Health & Substance Abuse Services its budget proposal for 2023-2024. One major task remaining for the Advisory Board is to develop the referral process and treatment services component for the Court.

Once the procedure is finalized, the Court will begin accepting referrals to the program. Knox County General Sessions Judge Chuck Cerny, who has faithfully served our Recovery and Veterans Treatment Courts for many years, will also preside over the Mental Health Court. Judge Cerny is committed to providing structure and accountability for all participants, acknowledging that each requires individualized case management and care. “First and foremost, the Mental Health Court will treat participants with dignity and compassion,” he says. The Knox County Mental Health Court is an ambitious project, but one that stands to bring a measure of fairness to citizens suffering from severe mental illness, ease the burden these cases add to our courts, reduce the cost of incarceration, and make our community safer. Perhaps one day we’ll no longer need the lime green jumpsuit.

(emphasis added)

Jonathan Cooper serves as Treasurer of the Knoxville Bar Association’s Board of Governors, where he has been a career long member. He has previously served as Co-Chair the Association’s Criminal Justice Section and President of the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and is a member of the Hamilton-Burnett Inn of Court. He is recognized by Tennessee Super Lawyers and Best Lawyers in America, where he was named the DUI Lawyer of the Year for Knoxville in 2023 and General Criminal Defense Lawyer of the Year in 2021.

Download the April 2023 Edition of DICTA, article on Mental Health Courts at page 11.