Court stresses treatment instead of jail time


LEXINGTON (AP) — Standing before a judge, Nathan Smith had good news to share as one of the first people to enter a new Fayette County treatment court for people with a diagnosed mental illness.

Smith recently told Fayette County District Judge Kim Wilkie that he had been “clean” for 57 days, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported.

The judge replied it was about the best he had ever seen Smith look.

“I thought we were going to lose you, Nathan,” the judge said.

Wilkie pressed play on a stereo perched on top of his bench and the sound of applause erupted from the speakers as Smith grinned and people in the courtroom clapped.

Participants in the treatment court agree to a two-year diversion program that focuses on treatment and recovery instead of jail time.

The court started as an all-volunteer effort in November 2014. It received a $150,000 start-up grant from Lexington Urban County Government in February to help pay for staff.

It is one of four courts in Kentucky that focuses on treatment instead of jail time for people with mental illness, the newspaper reported.

In its first eight months, 21 people enrolled in the diversion program. Eighteen were still in the program in early December. Others either voluntarily left for various reasons and were required to serve their sentences or were terminated for non-compliance.

People with misdemeanors and non-violent felonies can be referred to the program by prosecutors, defense attorneys and community members. They are then screened for mental illness.

The most common diagnosis is bipolar disorder followed by schizophrenia. Other diagnoses include depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and dissociative identity disorder. Eleven either are homeless or have experienced homelessness during their participation in the program, according to data provided by the court.

“It’s still in its beginning phases,” said Kelly Gunning, who spearheaded efforts to get the program off the ground. “We have learned a lot.”

Charlie Lanter, Lexington’s director of the Office of Homelessness Prevention and Intervention, said the city is encouraged by the quarterly reports the court sends to his office.

“Thus far, I’ve been really impressed with the court’s work. They have exceeded enrollment goals and have a high retention rate among those who participate,” Lanter said. “We’ve seen a positive impact among several of the individuals most commonly encountered in downtown Lexington, and that relieves some of the pressure experienced by police and downtown churches, business and visitors.”

Smith, who was referred to the program after being arrested on wanton endangerment and fourth-degree assault charges, said without the program, “I would be in federal prison, no doubt.”

His father, Kenny Smith, agreed.

Smith, 20, suffered a series of concussions when he was younger and has been in and out of therapy most of his life. But like many people with a diagnosed mental condition, he also has a substance abuse problem — an addiction to alprazolam, an anti-anxiety drug sometimes known by its brand name Xanax.

“People like him do not need to be in jail, they need treatment,” said Kenny Smith, after treatment court on Dec. 21. “This is one of the best things that Fayette County has ever done.”

Although just a year old, it could become one of the most cost-effective programs the city has funded.

If Smith stays in treatment, out of trouble and out of jail, it could save taxpayers potentially thousands of dollars in future jail and prison costs.

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