Panel discusses need for Mental Health Court in Hamilton County - | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

Panel discusses need for Mental Health Court in Hamilton County

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CHATTANOOGA, TN (WRCB) - Officials in Hamilton County are discussing a new initiative to keep people with serious mental illness out of jail.

They’re proposing a mental health court designed to provide services and break down barriers for those struggling with mental illness.

On Monday, people packed the Bessie Smith Cultural Center to hear from a panel about how the program would help close the gap between medical services and the court system.

“Anyone who is a taxpayer in Hamilton County is affected by mental health in some way or another and this program is designed to help public safety as well,” Assistant District Public Defender Anna Protano-Biggs said.

The Public Defender’s Office has proposed the mental health court program, where those diagnosed with severe mental illness will have the opportunity to get treatment, helping break the cycle many get caught up in.

“It’s proven that the longer they sit in jail, their situation diminishes even by the day, so it doesn’t help with the mentally ill,” General Sessions Court Judge Christie Sell said.

Cities in 30 states have mental health court programs. Nashville is the only other city in Tennessee with one.

In the past, supporters have pushed for the program, but lacked the support it needed to get up and running.

“We have members and you could see them shaking their heads when we were talking about different issues. These are people that obviously have been effected, they obviously know what’s going on in our community,” Sell added.

Right now, the program is still in the planning stages and will use services that already exist. Coordinators hope to have the court up and running early next year.

“What we're doing right now is improving collaboration amongst all the agencies. That’s why we have 36 people on our planning committee from all the different agencies around town,” Protano-Biggs said.

The planning committee will have more forums like the one Monday where people can ask questions and learn more about how the program will work.

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