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Some state lawmakers are looking favorably at the idea of expanding mental health courts in the state as a tool to divert mentally ill defendants from jails or prisons where they cost taxpayers millions of dollars to house and don't receive the treatment they need before their release.

The state currently operates mental health courts in Greenville, Columbia and Charleston, offering those suffering mental illness a chance to avoid jail or prison time.

Such programs, which operate like the state's drug courts, not only can channel the mentally ill to better treatment options, advocates say, they also can save governments money that would be spent on jail or prison costs.

"The court is quite effective and really good," 13th Circuit Solicitor Walt Wilkins of Greenville told The Greenville News. "I'm a big advocate for it."

House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister of Greenville said lawmakers should look at expanding the mental health court after the success of drug courts.

"I would anticipate mental health courts would have the same type of success," he said.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin of Pickens said questions would have to be worked out in expanding the program, but he would support reviewing the program.

"I would certainly be interested in reviewing the success rate of the circuits that are doing it now," he said.

"Any way we can avoid incarcerating these folks, getting them the treatment they need and doing justice for the victims involved, I'm certainly open to it."

Senate Corrections Committee Chairman Mike Fair of Greenville said he wasn't familiar with mental health courts but said he "absolutely" is interested to trying to have them expand.

"I think that would be a good bill to put in the hopper this year," he said. "It would be worth putting in just to stimulate conversation. So that's what I'm going to do."

The state estimates about 12 percent of the state prison system's 22,000 inmates suffer some form of mental illness. At $18,299 per inmate in costs, those that are mentally ill cost approximately $48 million a year.

The state's three mental health courts don't take defendants charged with violent or major crimes, officials said, but offer treatment plans for those facing less serious offenses. The courts are overseen by probate judges with the help of prosecutors and mental health professionals.

In Richland County's mental health court, 83.3 percent of those completing the program aren't committed or arrested again, according to the program's website. Wilkins said Greenville County's recidivism rate also is low.

To be eligible for the courts, which were established by the South Carolina Supreme Court, defendants must have an identifiable form of mental illness, be charged with a misdemeanor or a non-violent felony and are able to understand the terms of their agreement.

Defendants can be referred by members of the public, law enforcement, lawyers, prosecutors or mental health professionals.

Those charged with criminal domestic violence, lewd act on a minor, DUI, fraudulent checks or any offense in which the victim hasn't consented are excluded from the program.

Participants must stay in the program a minimum of three months, if their offense came from magistrate's court, to a maximum of 12 months or the length of their sentence or probation, for those charged with a general sessions offense.

Intensive case management and supervision is provided to the participant based on an individualized treatment plan developed for the participant, officials said. As treatment progresses, the participant will move to more traditional mental health services. Participants must report to the court each week, a feature that advocates say ensures accountability.

Those who don't complete the program are referred back to the court system. Those who do complete their programs often have their charges dropped. Wilkins said the charges range from shoplifting, to resisting arrest, larceny to simple possession of drugs.

"It's a win for the participants," said Debora Faulkner, a Greenville County probate judge. "It's a win for the taxpayers. It stops that revolving door into the jail or the hospital, all of which costs an enormous amount of money."

Faulkner, who has been involved in the program since it began in 2005, said one participant went on to get his Master's degree, while another earned his first paycheck in the program.

"We've had a lot of success," she said.

Faulkner said the Greenville County mental health court started on a grant but the money long ago ran out. She said the professionals involved remain committed to the program because it works so well.

The mental health team not only supervises a participant's treatment but also day-to-day needs, such as transportation.

Wilkins said Greenville County can only afford about 15 participants at a time.

Anderson County Probate Judge Martha Newton said her county's program lasted four or five years until grant money was spent and mental health budgets were cut severely. She said the program was successful and worthwhile until it closed about 2008.

She said if lawmakers choose to expand it, they should be sure mental health centers have the funds to help, including for doctors.

"It's a wonderful program but it takes money," she said.

Paton Blough, a Greenville mental health advocate, said the idea of expanding the number of mental health courts resonates among lawmakers he has talked to in the wake of a judge's 45-page order in January that criticized the state prison system for its handling of mentally ill prisoners.

He said in Ohio, which operates mental health courts, diversion is estimated to save the state $40,000 per defendant.

Mental health advocates are expected to rally at the Statehouse at 10 a.m. Wednesday on the steps to show lawmakers the benefits from mental health treatment.

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