KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Two East Tennessee leaders spoke about the start of the new mental health court that would link defendants to treatment as an alternative to incarceration.

Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs and Criminal Court Clerk Mike Hammond worked on the idea together and formed an exploratory committee a year ago. They also talked to leaders in the field of mental health courts in Tennessee and other states.

Hammond said he has been interested in the idea since before the pandemic.

“I had traveled to New York and went to the Brooklyn mental health court which was the first one in the United States,” Hammond said. “When I got back I was fired up about it and thought it was be something good for Knox County. We had started discussions and then of course COVID hit and everything was put on hold.”

Jacobs said the court would lower costs for the county by keeping people out of jail.

“Right now what happens is they get arrested for some low-level crime and end up in our detention facility. That’s very expensive and it doesn’t help anybody,” Jacobs said.

The court would be for eligible adult defendants with serious and ongoing mental illnesses. They would be put in a year-long program with the goal of rehabilitation.

“People will have case management, they will be expected to take their medications, take a look at getting jobs, get a place to live,” Hammond said.

Three leaders from the McNabb Center were on the exploratory committee, including Candace Allen, the Senior Director of Adult Intensive Outpatient Services.

“I think the bottom line is that we know that individuals that have mental illnesses interface with the criminal justice system over and over again,” Allen said. “I think if we can provide the court and then provide treatment it will help them as individuals and help the community at large.”

The committee was granted $52,500 from the state for the creation of the court, and Knox County Commission will vote on the contract at their February meeting. Jacobs and Hammond plan to request more money from the state over the summer and plan to have the court up and running by the fall.

“In the long term, the overall effect is going to be a more effective and efficient criminal justice system, spend less money on that particular aspect while reducing crime and reducing the number of victims,” Jacobs said.