BISBEE — Defendants who have behavioral health problems and commit crimes can end up costing Cochise County thousands of dollars for treatment as they are examined by professionals to determine if they can be returned to competency (RTC) and consciously take responsibility for what they have done.

Supervisors Tom Borer, Ann English and Peggy Judd decided to assist the county attorney’s office Tuesday during the board’s meeting, and agreed to a two-pronged approach as requested by County Attorney Brian MacIntyre.

MacIntyre introduced the Alternative Resolution Program (ARP), in which the defendant is offered the opportunity to attend a mental health treatment program and, in return, the county attorney will suspend prosecution and could ultimately end up dismissing the case if the defendant successfully completes the program.

Secondly, he asked to add a mental health program coordinator position, who would work with the county attorney’s office through the ARP.

The person will “gather data and make recommendations to prosecutors as to the suitability of defendants for participation in the program.” If admitted to the ARP, the person will coordinate mental health treatment for defendants and connect them to mental health services, monitor and report their progress, and make recommendations to the prosecutor to dismiss or resume the criminal case.

The program seeks to reduce recidivism, improve the mental health of individuals, enhance community safety and save the county money, stated the documentation.

Return to competencyRTC is a process of a court determination of the defendant’s competency to stand trial, mainly on the basis of mental illness and/or the intellectual incapacity to understand the court’s proceeding to participate in his or her defense. Under Arizona Statute, RTC is legally unrelated to the defendant’s mental state at the time of the alleged crime. It relates solely to the defendant’s state of mind during criminal proceedings.

Many defendants with significant mental health issues are caught up in a cycle within the criminal justice system, sometimes spending a substantial time in jail, often for low level or nuisance offenses, and not receiving treatment for the mental health problems, MacIntyre said.

“In many instances the defendant is, or may be, incompetent to stand trial, resulting in a costly process, in which the defendant is evaluated for competency and sent to a very expensive, and sometimes ineffective program to restore the defendant to competency in order to stand trial. Neither the defendant nor the community winds up being served, and the county foots the bill,” MacIntyre explained.

Costs risingRTC costs have been a subject of intense county budget discussions over the past few years as these costs annually rise considerably. The county is required to cover the costs.

“We face a reality that the criminal justice system is the de facto mental health system for most people,” MacIntyre said. “While it’s not in our job description necessarily, it is our responsibility to seek better outcomes for individuals whose mental conditions result, at least partially, in their involvement in the justice system.”

Nine individuals are currently in the program, representing 32 criminal cases, he noted.

“If each of those individuals had been sent to Restoration to Competency, the cost to the county would be roughly $360,000. Put most simply, the system has been throwing money at a problem for years. Now we are, hopefully, providing funding to facilitate a solution.”

In the first quarter of the 2019-2020 budget, from July 1 to October 31, the costs are already more than the $400,000 estimation, according to a report last month prepared by Dan Duchon, county budget manager. In fact, the RTC expenses could reach nearly $1.8 million for the fiscal year, a high estimate he projected.

A cost analysis prepared by Duchon showed costs per defendant can range from $7,500 to almost $60,000. One individual in 2016 cost the county over $100,000.

“The average cost for restoration to competency for one individual is $40,000. If just 3 people a year are successful in the program, it will pay for itself plus roughly $20,000 ‘change’ back,” MacIntyre said.

New program, positionRather than continue on the same course of action which may or may not provide optimal care, MacIntyre proposed the ARP, offering the defendant the opportunity to attend a mental health treatment program and, in return, the county attorney may suspend prosecution. If the defendant successfully completes the program, the case could be dismissed.

His plan added the position of a mental health program coordinator who will gather data and make recommendations to prosecutors as to the suitability of defendants for participation in the program. The coordinator “will coordinate mental health treatment for them and connect them to mental health services, monitor and report their progress, and make recommendations to the prosecutor to dismiss or resume the criminal case,” stated his proposal.

“Overall, the coordinator will seek to reduce recidivism, improve the mental health of individuals, enhance community safety,” and save money in the process.

The proposed salary for the coordinator, which will be managed by the County Attorney’s Office, is $65,000 per year plus another $35,000 for employee related expenses, travel and training. MacIntyre wants the position filled by early 2020.

“The program coordinator will assist with coordinating treatment, housing, employment, benefits and hold individuals accountable for staying connected in treatment as well as serving as a liaison to navigate and map out the often complicated and ever changing landscape of treatment providers in the community,” MacIntyre said.

He expects the position to pay for itself as those with mental health issues are treated and recidivism decreases along with the number of very costly evaluations and restorations to competency.

“While a client is in the program, quite frankly, we will do everything possible to help, provided clients remain connected and involved in treatment to remove the phrase ‘justice involved’ from their daily life,” MacIntyre added.

“In other words, there won’t be multiple court hearings or office appointments with us, unless needed to secure compliance. At the same time, we maintain the ability to return them quickly to the court system for correction if they stray.”

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