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City of Hudson hopes its mental health court will be a model for other cities

 Hudson City Court
Daniel Brady
Hudson City Court

Within the Hudson City Court, a designated mental health court is now holding sessions.

Mental health court is characterized as a "problem-solving court" by the New York State Unified Court System, meaning it helps judges and court staff better respond to the underlying issues that bring people into the court system, and employ innovative approaches to address them. City Judge Cheryl Roberts says a mental health court in Columbia County was long overdue.

"65% of our docket in Hudson City Court involves people with known or suspected mental illness or substance use disorder, and at least half the people incarcerated across the country have mental illness," Roberts said. "And when you're talking about women, it can be much higher. This is an issue that needs to be addressed, not just in Hudson, but across the country. And the best solution, you know, would be for them not to enter the criminal justice system. But once they are, then yes, mental health courts or problem solving courts, as they're known, provide at least an exit ramp for them out of the system, and into the mental health system, which is where they belonged in the first place."

Hudson Mayor Kamal Johnson, a Democrat running for re-election, says the mental health court is one of his administration's main initiatives.

"It came about when we started working on police reform and systems reforms a couple of years ago," said Johnson. "And, you know, this year when I appointed judge Cheryl Roberts to city court judge, she got to work right away on some of these system changes. We now have a mental health court that's been up and running, since I believe October. And just last week, on the second, we had our first graduate from the mental health court. And I do have to say, this is something that, you know, as a city and a county, we should be proud of."

Roberts, who is also the Executive Director of the non-profit Greenburger Center for Social and Criminal Justice in New York City, says the program offers some additional perks.

"One of the things we were very excited about, in addition to having our first graduate of the mental health court, was that we were offer able to offer her a scholarship that we're calling the PETE scholarship, it stands for peer education, training and employment," said Roberts. "And it's a concept I came up with, and was very happy to get it funded with Mayor Johnson's help through an organization called the Spark of Hudson. And this program will provide peer education and training for someone with lived experience who wants to be a certified peer, to work with other people in similar circumstances. And it will pay the trainers, but will also pay the person who's gotten the scholarship to, to take the training. So she's paid while she's in training, and then it will pay her for up to a year of employment if she agrees to serve as a peer in Columbia County."

Johnson says participants who agree to go through mental health court not only avoid jail time but get to work in a field they have firsthand knowledge about.

"There's a list of community organizations out there that are in the courtroom at the time," Johnson said. "So they don't have to be referred to different buildings on their own, they literally can go talk to the organization that second. So they will have a bunch of requirements that are laid out through each organization, that'll be offering a ton of wraparound services, and then they report back to the court. After they've completed their entire training, then they no longer will have to face the charges or the misdemeanors."

Roberts says the program encourages people to go into treatment when a misdemeanor is on the table, rather than wait for them to come back into the system with a higher level charge.

"We're very excited about it, because we're very desperately in need of more peers in Columbia County and really, throughout the country," said Roberts. "I mean, the idea is, keep them out if you can do that. And if not, if they enter the system at a misdemeanor level, let's get them treatment and keep them out rather than waiting for them to be charged with a felony and then providing the treatment, because there's this incentive at that point to avoid prison."

Johnson and Roberts hope Hudson’s experience with mental health court will offer an example to other municipalities across upstate New York.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.