Baldwin County LogoPress Release

January 27, 2020 - Bay Minette, AL - (OBA®) - Baldwin County is working toward creating and operating its own mental health court, as several Baldwin County officials recently visited Judge Stephen Wallace’s courtroom in Jefferson County to see how that county’s mental health court operates.

Rep. Matt Simpson (R – Daphne) has filed a bill for this legislative session that will help create a funding mechanism for the new mental health court, which will be a diversionary program for people with mental illnesses who have committed non-violent crimes.

“This is an issue that I’ve been looking at and working on for some time,” Simpson said. “We’ve had a situation in this county where people with mental illnesses have had to be sent to our county jail facility and that’s creating several problems, namely that the jail is having to become a de facto mental health service provider and puts those people with mental illnesses and the other inmates at potential safety and health risks.”

The mental health court diversionary program would operate similarly to existing diversionary programs already present in Baldwin County, like the Drug and Veterans Courts.

“The main goal with this program is really to get these folks the mental health services, help and support they need without putting additional strains on our jail facility and budget,” Simpson said. “This program would be to get them the help they need, not putting them in a jail cell where their underlying mental health problems could possibly be compounded.”

On Jan. 23, Simpson visited the Jefferson County Mental Health Court to see how it operates and functions, along with Presiding Circuit Court Judge Scott Taylor, District Attorney Bob Wilters, Probate Judge Harry D’Olive, District Court Judge Bill Scully and other staff members.

The Baldwin delegation observed Judge Wallace’s Mental Health Court team as they worked through a typical docket, and Baldwin members got to ask questions about potential issues or cases that the Jefferson County court had dealt with.

Judge Taylor said it was highly beneficial to see Jefferson County’s Mental Health Court in action.

“It’s very similar to what we’re already doing here in Baldwin County with our Drug Court and our Veterans Court, which have both been very successful programs for our county” Taylor, who presides over the Baldwin County Drug Court, said. “This is something we’re going to continue to study and discuss as we move forward with the Mental Health Court program.”

Judge Scully agreed.

“The wholesale closure of mental health hospitals in Alabama has shifted a great burden of dealing with mentally ill individuals to the jails and the criminal justice system,” Scully said. “In Birmingham’s Mental Health Court, Judge Wallace is addressing these problems in an innovative and compassionate manner.  His example deserves our attention and study as we tackle these problems in our own county.  I also applaud Matt Simpson for his efforts in this area.”

Wilters said it was helpful to see the interaction between Wallace’s program staff and the Jefferson County District Attorney’s office as they moved through the cases in the docket.

“The operations of a diversionary program like that depend heavily on having a good working relationship between your judicial staff, program staff, corrections, public defenders and your district attorney’s office,” Wilters said. “I think their model is something we could likely try to replicate and adjust to fit our needs here in Baldwin County, and it does fit within the parameters of things we’ve already been doing here like our Drug Court.”

Judge D’Olive, who does commitments as part of his job as probate judge, said given his familiarity with mental health issues, he could see the benefits of the program for Baldwin County.

“Within my role as probate judge, I constantly deal with and see mental health issues across our county, and I can certainly see how a mental health court program would be beneficial in Baldwin,” D’Olive said. “Mental health issues certainly aren’t going away, so anything we can do to try to connect people to the help and services they need is a step in a positive direction.”

Simpson said his legislation was just to help create a funding source for the potential mental health court through a constitutional amendment to be voted on by the people of Baldwin County that would create use-generated fees on vaping products, CBD products and hemp products.

“I just wanted to try to put together a way to possibly financially support this program, making sure that the people of Baldwin County would get to vote on the matter,” Simpson said. “How this mental health court will be set up and run, I wanted to leave that to our judges and our district attorney so that they could design and implement a program that works best for Baldwin County. They’re the experts in this – I just wanted to find a way to try to help pay for something we know is vitally needed here.”