KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Knox County is working to help adults with severe mental illness receive treatment as an alternative to prison.

Knox County is establishing a mental health court for adult defendants who have serious and persistent mental illnesses. The court is designed to act as an alternative to incarceration by addressing the underlying issues that led to a person’s arrest through “judicially supervised treatment plans” created by court staff and mental health professionals.

“I’m extremely excited about a mental health court becoming a reality in Knox County and would like to thank the exploratory committee for their hard work,” Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs said. “Sadly, mental health issues often play a role in perpetuating the cycle of incarceration. Not only will this court allow us to identify individuals in need and connect them with services that will help them, but disrupting that cycle of incarceration means less crime and fewer victims.”

The goals of Knox County’s Mental Health Court include improving participants’ quality of life, reducing incarceration and recidivism, reducing correction costs, improving public safety and increasing treatment success. The court’s specialized docket is designed for those with serious mental illnesses and other related psychiatric disorders. It uses a problem-solving model instead of traditional criminal court processing.

Similar courts have been set up across the country since the 1990s. At this time, there are about 300. Knox County’s Mental Health Court would be the eighth of its kind in Tennessee.

About a year ago, Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs and Knox County Criminal Court Clerk Mike Hammond began working to create the court. Jacobs appointed a committee to address the possibility of the court and how practical it would be. The committee is made up of several members of the District Attorney’s office, Knox County judges, public defenders and McNabb Center representatives.

“I am extremely pleased the committee has taken the time to lay the groundwork for a mental health court,” Hammond said. “This will be another step forward in helping the justice system provide services and treatment for persons with mental illnesses and their families.”

The committee has held several conferences and calls with other mental health courts including the Eleventh Judicial District Criminal Mental Health Project in Miami-Dade County, Fla., and the New York City Mental Health Diversion program. They also visited courts in Nashville-Davidson, Bradley, and Hamilton counties. The committee members also gained input from local agencies, service providers, and mental health professionals about what the court would need.

The committee is made up of the following people:

  • Mike Hammond Criminal Court Clerk as Chairman
  • Charme Allen, District Attorney General
  • Sam Lee, Chief Deputy District Attorney General
  • The Honorable Chuck Cerny, Division 1 General Sessions Court
  • The Honorable Steve Sword, Division 1 Criminal Court
  • Eric Lutton, Knox County Public Defender
  • Wright Surgenor, Director of Social Services, Knox County Public Defender’s Office
  • Jonathan Cooper, Private Defense Bar
  • Alex Brown, Chief Deputy Criminal Court Clerk Office
  • Candace Allen, McNabb Center
  • Leann Human-Hillard, McNabb Center
  • Mona Blanton-Kitts, CEO McNabb Center

The Knox County Commission will review the contract during their February meeting. The contract is for start-up funds of $52,500. This money will come from a Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services grant. With commission approval, the money should come in by the end of March.

Officials will also work with the state to create a framework for the court. The county will also seek more funding for the next fiscal year. Pending commission approval, the court could start operating in August.