Behavioral Health Courts Offer Many A New Journey To Mental Health

A county locator map of California, with San F...
A county locator map of California, with San Francisco County highlighted and enlarged in red. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

San Francisco Behavioral Health Court celebrates 10th Anniversary

Have you ever heard of a Behavioral Health Court?  There is a good chance your answer to that question is “No!” However, it turns out that a number of county courts in various states offer Behavioral Health Courts. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) provides an interactive map where you can click on your state to view the existing U.S. mental health treatment courts in that state.

On October 16, 2013, San Francisco’s Behavioral Health Court celebrated its 10th anniversary at the St. Francis Yacht Club. According to the Los Angeles Times, the audience was able to meet Superior Court Judge Kay Tsenin who founded the court and they enjoyed a violin performance by one of the court’s graduates, Kim Knoble.

Learning more about the San Francisco Behavioral Health Court

The Behavioral Health Court of the Superior Court of California in the County of San Francisco was founded and created in 2002 by Judge Kay Tsenin. The LA Times reports:

Tsenin spoke of watching the same defendants cycle through her courtroom over and over because of illness. After one young woman released to a group home missed a court hearing, Tsenin learned she had jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge.

“It got me to thinking, ‘What if?’” Tsenin said. “What if we had services that could follow up on these defendants? What if we could even make them better? What if we thought of justice as something other than incarceration?”

Tsenin collaborated with Deputy Public Defender Jennifer Johnson, Assistant Dist. Atty. Cynthia Johns and Kathleen Connolly Lacey, who directs the forensic program for Citywide Case Management. With no funding and little fanfare, they just did it, prompting others in the hulking Hall of Justice to refer to it as a “secret court.”

Now all these years later and with many success stories their webpage clearly defines the MISSION.

The mission of the Behavioral Health Court of the Superior Court of California, County of San Francisco is to enhance public safety and reduce recidivism of criminal defendants who suffer from serious mental illness by connecting these defendants with community treatment services, and to find appropriate dispositions to the criminal charges by considering the defendant’s mental illness and the seriousness of the offense.

It is important to note that in the beginning Judge Tsenin envisioned helping 10 – 20 defendants at any given time; however, that number has grown to an average of 140 clients, all suffering from serious mental illness and who have committed felonies. 

Meet Kim Knoble…

The only way for you to really appreciate the journey of recovery that Kim has traveled is to read her story as published this past week by the Los Angeles Times. Many parents, spouses, siblings and friends will see their loved one in Kim’s story of her co-occurring disorders. Bright, musically talented, and off to college with a full music scholarship at the University of California, Irvine. Kim started hearing voices, was convinced that the FBI was tapping her phone and before long she started using drugs. Many years later after a number of hospitalization, rehabs, relapses, and homelessness, it was two years ago that Kim found her way to the Behavioral Health Court.

“What brought Knoble redemption was the crime she would commit. Agitated and off her medication two years ago, she pushed a 75-year-old man down the stairs of a city bus. He was injured. She was arrested.

But Knoble was fortunate. She was accepted into San Francisco’s Behavioral Health Court, which in lieu of incarceration offers comprehensive treatment, housing, vocational services and more under the supervision of a Superior Court judge.”

At Wednesday night’s celebration, Knoble shared with the audience that the program “helped show me that I still had a chance — because my life matters.” And with that she played her violin performing Jules Massenet’s “Mediation from Thais.”

A bit more about Behavioral Health Courts…

If you would like to learn more about the efficacy of these courts, there was a study published online October 4, 2010, in the Archives General Psychiatry (JAMA Psychiatry).  You can read the original article “Effect of Mental Health Courts on Arrests and Jail Days – A Multisite Study.”

Additionally, if you live in Pima County, Arizona, you should know that we have a Mental Health Court located in Tucson, Arizona.

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