MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Tenn. (WKRN) — Montgomery County is joining a statewide effort to have more mental health courts in Tennessee. On Thursday, Gov. Bill Lee is scheduled to join local leaders to celebrate the opening of a mental health court in the 19th judicial district.

According to the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (TDMHSAS), mental health courts fall under the category of the state’s recovery court system, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Mental health courts are judicially-supervised court dockets aimed at reducing correctional costs, protecting community safety and improving public welfare.

“I’ve seen it work, I have been in the this field with problem solving courts, specialty courts, recovery courts, drug courts for over 20 years, this has been my career,” said Rebekah Provost-Emmons, director of the TDMHSAS Office of Criminal Justice Services. “I see the success stories, I see the faces and the people that I know that have gone through this process.”

The department described mental health courts as being modeled after drug courts, having been developed in response to the over representation of people with mental illnesses in the criminal justice system.

“The mental health courts actually started back in 1997, in Florida. They were a response to deinstitutionalization. The courts were seeing a number of individuals with mental health, mental illness appearing before them and they just were looking for answers. And they were looking for a way to respond in a manner that would help folks not recidivate and get out of the system and get the treatment that they needed.”

According to TDMHSAS, mental health courts divert select defendants with mental health disorders into judicially-supervised, community-based treatment.

“Participants should be identified through a screening and assessment process to determine eligibility, they have to voluntarily agree to participate in the programming. And then once they do, a special individualized treatment plan is developed for them as they progress through the program,” explained Provost-Emmons. “It’s all about screening and assessment to determine an individual that has a mental illness who is at a high risk to reoffend if the mental illness is not treated, and is at a high need for treatment, whether it be mental health treatment, or treatment for co-occurring disorder.”

Mental health courts are currently in several Middle Tennessee counties including Davidson, Williamson, Rutherford and Sumner counties. The state went from three mental health courts in 2022 to officially having 17 come Monday. In 2022, the Tennessee legislature adopted a budget with funding for mental health courts for the first time in state history. The Mental Health Treatment act of 2022 added $5.7 million in new, recurring state funding for the department running the programs.

“I think there’s a number of different ways we measure success. Obviously, we want individuals to be in recovery, whether it be continuing their therapy and medication management’s, it looks different for everybody,” said Provost-Emmons. “But we want individuals to maintain their recovery, to be productive citizens. To stay out of the justice system is our ultimate goal. But there’s other gains, too — there’s employment, there’s education gains, there’s housing gains, there’s restoration of a family’s relationships. So, success is measured along a continuum.”

State officials said while it’s too soon to widely report outcomes from mental health courts in Tennessee, they can share that six in 10 people who participate in a recovery court program in Tennessee improve or maintain their employment and seven in 10 improve or maintain their housing. Provost-Emmons explained that biggest benefit of a mental health court is public safety, but individuals and communities can see other positive effects as well.

“All of this goes hand in hand to reduce courts and carceral related costs through providing this alternative to incarceration,” she said. “So it’s two things. It’s helping people live better lives, it’s helping communities become stronger. And it’s saving taxpayer dollars by keeping individuals out of incarceration.”

She encouraged anyone wanting to see a mental health court to community to contact her at the Office of Criminal Justice Services.