TL;DR Come to an Alternative Sentencing Court -- a sentencing court designed to keep defendants with mental health issues out of jail and into the services that can help them. Just watching the trust built between these defendants and figures of authority, and the care the ASC panel has for them, is guaranteed to motivate you.
|Mock of the "hot seat" at ASC. No cameras allowed in courtroom.|
I honestly didn't know what to expect, walking into Topeka Municipal Court's Alternative Sentencing Court Wednesday.
I knew it was a program we started in January for defendants with mental health issues who had been convicted or charged with misdemeanor criminal or traffic offenses. Instead of going to jail, we put them in a yearlong program, in which they have to pass regular drug tests, attend regular meetings and court sessions and go to various programs, like anger management and substance abuse services.
But I definitely didn't expect to see the amount of trust these defendants placed on the ASC panel, a panel that consisted of social workers from the VA, a police officer, a probation officer, attorneys and a judge. A group of people those caught up in the justice system rarely even have respect for, let alone could come to trust.
I know. I'm the City spokeswoman. I'm supposed to say that. If you have any doubts, look at the interactions I witnessed today. (Apologies. No cameras allowed in court, so the images today are from the Twitter feed and a mock after it was over):
|More about this woman in the first bullet.|
It hasn't always been this way. Topeka Municipal Court Administrative Judge Vic Miller, who presided over today's ASC, said at the very first meetings in January, some of the defendants were like zombies.
"One of the things that has surprised me is how well they embrace the group, not just those up here, but there's a connection among the people in this program as well," Miller said. "I think they, just like us up here, get a benefit out of seeing others improve through this."
Seeing that trust, that relationship in person (I sat up with the panel, so I could see their faces), was a truly powerful thing:
- I saw a woman in tears, frustrated with herself and her alcoholism -- a problem the 43-year-old woman doesn't understand, after spending half of her life addicted to drugs. She failed her BA test Wednesday: .102. She started ASC in January after being convicted of DUI. She could have been phased to weekly or even monthly court reviews, but wanted to keep coming every week to have some accountability.
- I saw a 51-year-old man who was convicted of criminal trespass, battery, theft and disorderly conduct try to brighten the Judge's day, and smile big when he graduated into Phase 2 (court review every other week). We all clapped for him.
- And I saw a woman, 25, beam as Judge Miller read her six tips (her assignment was five, by the way) to keeping a cool head. She was convicted of battery and has been in ASC only since June. Her list was good advice for all of us, actually:
- Do crafts
- Talk to staff
- Ignore it
- Take a deep breath and count to 10
- Walk away
- Listen to music.music
This service has helped people get off the streets and into permanent housing (there was one today, in fact). It's helped them find jobs. Gets them connected with therapy. They even give out bus tickets if they need them. Keeping them regular on their medication is another big part of it, Miller said.
"Medication can help so much of this," he said. "It doesn't solve everything, but when they're on the right meds, it can do wonders."
This program truly is making a difference for some of the most vulnerable in our community. I didn't know what to expect walking into ASC Wednesday, but I didn't expect to leave inspired.
|Another mock shot of ASC. Woman in purple (Heather) is where defendants sit)|
More information on ASC:
- Started Jan. 7, 2015, so no one completely through yet, though some have been on since January. Six have dropped out. When that happens, probation is revoked and they serve their jail sentence.
- 17 are enrolled right now, all in probation program. Convictions include criminal trespass, abusing toxic vapors, DUI, disorderly conduct, false alarm, assaulting a law enforcement officer and battery. Ages range from 19 to 60.
- ASC involves treatment, regular court, regular drug testing, payment of court fees and paying for treatment To successfully complete the ASC program, defendants have to make all appointments and court reviews and have clean blood tests for one year. It is a phase-based program with four phases:
- Phase 1: Court review each week
- Phase 2: Court review every other week
- Phase 3: Court review one time each month
- Phase 4: Graduation
- Takes one year to complete
- Programs for ASC defendants range from substance abuse and housing services to mental health counseling and job programs. Each person has their own, individual program developed by the partnership between court, attorneys, probation and jail.
- ASC convenes at 2 every Wednesday in the Topeka Municipal Court, 214 S.E. 8th.