BISBEE — Back in November, the Cochise County Board of Supervisors approved the innovative, free program Giving Recovery a Chance (GRACE) which provides mental health services for those who end up in trouble with the law and need help.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Krist-Anah Watkins, the county’s mental health coordinator, gave an update to supervisors Tom Borer, Ann English and Peggy Judd on the progress of the program and an indication of just how much GRACE has helped those with serious mental health issues.

“The GRACE program is an alternative to traditional prosecution for defendants who are afflicted by a Mental Health Issue. It is intended primarily for heavy users of the criminal justice system whose mental health problems potentially affect their ability to meaningfully assist in their own defense and otherwise complicate their daily lives,” she told them. “And, specifically those who are seriously mentally ill.”

Defendants who participate in the GRACE Program are connected to appropriate services. Once the defendant has successfully completed the treatment plan, as determined by a medical or mental health professional, their cases can be dismissed.

With a recent growth in the number of defendants being found incompetent to stand trial and subsequently sent through a very costly process to have their competency restored, County Attorney Brian McIntyre looked at ways to address the problem. GRACE appears to be one answer.

“Individuals with untreated mental health problems may also have frequent interaction with law enforcement and the criminal justice system, struggle with alcohol and drug abuse and are often in jail for an extended period of time,” Watkins said.

The program is meant to break the criminal justice system cycle of crime and recidivism for those with significant mental health problems which lead to repeated time in jail, she said. People with these issues did not get the help they needed while incarcerated or when they returned to their lives in society. They had no parachute to help them get back into a relatively normal life as part of society.

Through the GRACE program, which is free, those who participate receive the needed treatment during incarceration as well as when they are released from prison, she continued. They receive help with housing, job hunting, staying employed and the seemingly simple yet important things like acquiring a birth certificate, Social Security number and driver’s license.

There are 36 defendants in the program, including two veterans, and 11 more have been referred. Eight have successfully graduated and have not reoffended since release. Four more are expected to graduate in June.

“It helps people keep up with what they are required to do,” Watkins said.

“Five people have been diagnosed or have seen a mental health provider for the first time, because of the GRACE program,” she added.

She used the example of a 57-year-old man who was finally diagnosed with schizophrenia for the first time through the program.

The program is also helping save taxpayer dollars through cost reductions of incarceration, prosecutorial and defense attorney fees and court costs while increasing community safety and improving the lives of those afflicted. Estimated savings are more than $1 million, she said.

Watkins gives credit to the County Attorney’s Office, the mental health agencies, local shelters, Canyon Vista Medical Center which has a floor devoted to those with mental issues and the county Sheriff’s Office.

She recounted an incident with a suicidal woman who was transported by a deputy. Transportation is a problem they are trying to solve.

“Yes, we have challenges. We do have relapses, but we’re trying to fill the gap. We do see a reduction in recidivism, in nuisance crimes like shoplifting,” she said. “We want to break the cycle.”

English told Watkins, “It seems as though this is working. These are good results.”

Borer said, “This is a good program. We’re helping people and saving money.”

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