Sarpy County has taken the lead on delivering treatment and change for people who are dealing with mental illness and involved in the criminal justice system.
Sarpy County Wellness Court is Nebraska’s first mental health court. The program’s goal is to address the person’s underlying issues and connect them to treatment and resources as an alternative to incarceration.
District Court Judge Stefanie Martinez presides over the court, which was announced in January and by November had nine participants. Additional potential participants are undergoing screening.
“We’re seeing more and more people enter the criminal justice system who have severe mental health diagnoses. Because of a lack of resources, we’re incarcerating those individuals instead of addressing the treatment they need,” Martinez said. “We’re extremely grateful for and hopeful about this opportunity to assist these individuals in our community.”
The Nebraska Legislature paved the way for mental health court by expanding the state’s definition of problem-solving courts in 2016. Then, in 2020, the legislature approved funding for the Nebraska Supreme Court to create a pilot program.
Sarpy County Wellness Court is voluntary, and participants have to pass a competency evaluation, then plead guilty to the charge they’re facing. Participants meet regularly with the judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, treatment providers, probation officers and law enforcement.
Common charges participants are facing include possession of a controlled substance, flight to avoid arrest and theft by shoplifting. All participants are facing felony charges and are at a high risk of re-offending.
The court works to stabilize the participant, ensure they have stable housing, help them avoid drugs and alcohol, and connect them with various treatment providers and community services.
“This approach is helping people get the resources they need, and helping them build skills so they can manage their mental health,” Chief Deputy Sarpy County Attorney Bonnie Moore said. “Most of our participants appear in person, which has proven important for the program because they have interaction with Judge Martinez. No one has withdrawn, which is really positive.”
Programming may include support from family members and peer-support specialists.
“We’re building a team of people around that person and finding the medications and therapies that work for them, and making sure they’re following through on treatments,” said Chris Lathrop, a division lead for the Sarpy County Public Defender’s Office. “Sometimes these members of our community never get any kind of affirmation for the positive things they’re doing in their life. Here they’re getting positive feedback for their good behaviors.”
When a participant successfully completes the program, they can withdraw their guilty plea, and the County Attorney’s Office will dismiss the charge. Those who violate the terms or conditions of the court can be removed from the program and will proceed to sentencing.
Sarpy County Wellness Court builds on the county’s history of prioritizing on mental health, which includes a mental health diversion program created by the Sarpy County Attorney’s Office in 2014, and the area’s first dedicated mental health law enforcement unit, which the Sarpy County Sheriff’s Office formed in 2018.
Other Sarpy County Mental Health Initiatives
Wellness Court is just one of many mental health initiatives underway in Sarpy County. Others include:
- Sarpy County Sheriff’s Office Mental Health Unit. This specialized unit responds to people experiencing mental health crisis, works with therapists, follows up on people who’ve had contact with law enforcement and coordinates mental health trainings across the county.
- Mental Health Diversion. The Sarpy County Attorney’s Office offers a diversion program for people who commit low-level crimes and have underlying mental health issues. The program is an alternative to the formal court process and allows people to get the help and treatment they need.
- Mental Health Case Management Program. A program for those awaiting trial. Case managers connects people with community resources to help with therapy and medication management.
- Forensic Psychology Fellowship. Sarpy County is partnering with the University of Nebraska Medical Center to create the state’s first forensic psychiatry fellowship. The fellowship will support the correctional center’s dedicated behavioral health care unit, and the fellows will assess and treat inmates dealing with mental illness.
- Behavioral Health Unit. The new Correctional Center will have an entire unit for inmates with mental illness and other behavioral health issues.