GILLETTE — For more than two decades, Campbell County has used treatment courts to help those with substance abuse issues turn their lives around, get sober and become productive members of society.
Now, Campbell County is looking to expand it even further. It was recently chosen by the state to be the site of an adult diversion program that is based on the treatment court model.
To start, the program will focus on nonviolent misdemeanor offenders with select mental health issues that can be treated with medication. If Campbell County is successful with this program, it could be the blueprint for the rest of the state.
Circuit Judge Paul Phillips and District Judge Matthew Castano have spearheaded the effort, which includes a number of organizations and government departments.
Sheriff’s Capt. Kevin Theis said that ever since the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s seen a large increase in the number of people with mental illnesses in the jail.
More and more inmates have been acting out. While some are doing it out of a general disrespect for law enforcement, others have underlying mental issues that, if not for those issues, they wouldn’t be in jail.
“We know when they get on their prescribed medications, they’re OK, and they can function out in society,” Theis said.
But once they’re off those medications, whether because they decide not to take it or because they can’t afford it, they often wind back up in jail.
“Let’s keep these people out of jail and get them the treatment they need,” Phillips said. “In return, we’ll defer prosecution, and if they’re successful, dismiss the charges.”
These people will be arrested on a misdemeanor, and they’re later identified as having a mental issue that needs to be addressed before they can proceed through the court system.
This can often take weeks, if not months, and “that’s where the train stops most of the time,” Theis said.
How long they have to wait depends on how soon they can be taken to the state hospital in Evanston for an evaluation.
At one point this year, the jail was holding 15 people who were waiting on evaluations by the state hospital, Theis said.
It’s taken a toll on the detention officers, and it’s made it difficult for the Sheriff’s Office to keep employees and hire new ones, he added.
“One to 2% of our population takes about 98% of our effort every day,” Theis said. “They know we can’t or won’t retaliate, so they keep pushing the limits further and further, seeing what we put up with.”
The job already has a high turnover rate due to the daily stresses.
“When you add on the screaming, kicking for 12 hours in booking, or having food trays or bodily fluids thrown at you, it takes a special type of person to come back the next day and try again,” Theis said.
It puts law enforcement in a quandary, said Sheriff Scott Matheny. For example, there was an inmate who destroyed windows in the block he was staying in. The Sheriff’s Office can charge the man for felony destruction of property, which means he’ll face consequences for his actions, but he’ll remain in the jail longer. Or it could choose not to charge him, in the hopes that he’ll leave the jail sooner.
“When I first started this profession, everybody who goes to jail needed to be held accountable for what they’re doing,” Matheny said. “I still believe that, but now, in these positions, sometimes it’s easier to say, go ahead, get out of here.”
Earlier this year, Phillips and Castano visited Miami with Chief Justice Kate Fox and others at the state level to witness an adult diversion program in progress.
Since then, there have been meetings to figure out how to adapt the Miami model to make it work in Gillette. The model is “analogous” to the treatment court model, Phillips said, which Campbell County has utilized to great success.
The plan is to leverage what resources are available in Campbell County to make this program work, but it won’t be an easy task. The program’s participants will require a high level of supervision. Phillips said they’ll likely have housing and food insecurity and issues with transportation.
The VOA recently opened an outpatient services clinic in Gillette. It will be handling the treatment portion of the program. The supervision will be handled by the Campbell County Adult Treatment Courts team.
Chad Beeman, director of the Adult Treatment Courts, said this should be doable “with our current staff.” His team can handle up to 40 participants, and they’re dealing with less than 30 right now.
He called this program a “stepping stone,” and he expects it to “start with some minor cases, see how we can help those individuals, hopefully get them back on track.”
Phillips said he’d like to get some people in the program as early as this fall, but a lot of details still need to be worked out, such as how people are referred to the program, how they’re evaluated and what the requirements are for completing the program.
Friday, a meeting was held in Gillette with local law enforcement, judges, state and local health officials, as well as members of the state executive branch, to hash those questions out, as well as how the program will be funded.
Phillips said this pilot program won’t accept the worst offenders, but hopefully it can take a handful of people off of the jail’s hands and reduce the stress somewhat.
“I want the criminals in detention and the ones who are mentally ill in treatment, and not the other way around,” he said.
Beeman and his team will conduct home visits and drug tests and make sure the participants are taking their medications.
Many times, the medications can be too expensive, and once a person runs out of money, he’ll go off the medication and often use a street drug that’s cheaper, ultimately ending up back in jail.
Undersheriff Quentin Reynolds said it can be easy to criticize those with mental health problems for not taking their medication, but it’s a problem that’s not unique to them.
“It’s no different than me and my cholesterol medicine,” Reynolds said. “I’ll take it for a while, take a test, and think ‘I’m good, I don’t need that.’ Then, at the next test, I’m like, ‘Wow!’”
This program won’t solve all of the problems going on at the jail or on the streets, but it’s a start, Matheny said.
“We just want quicker diagnoses, quicker reaction times by the state, so we’re not housing these people in our facility for lengthy periods of time. If we can cut that down, we would be successful,” he said.
Phillips compared the criminal justice system to an interstate. At one end, you have law enforcement making initial contact with a defendant. At the other end, there’s the trial and sentencing.
“Along the way, there are a bunch of off-ramps, so, at any time, if someone sees a defendant is struggling, we can take them off an off-ramp, get them assessed and evaluated, and have the team see if maybe they’re a viable candidate for this program,” he said.
Over the last 20-plus years, Campbell County has shown that it can expand the treatment court model. Several years ago, it went from having just drug court to creating a new track for DUI offenders. This year, that track was modified to include misdemeanor offenses.
This adult diversion court is just the next step in the program’s growth, Phillips said.
It will be up to the state to determine if the program is successful. Because the program will have a small sample size, every failure, and every success, will look disproportionately large and can skew the statistics.
“If it’s seen as something that can help the state, great,” Phillips said. “If not, we’ll look at it internally and say, is it helping Campbell County? If it is, I suspect we’ll find a way to keep it going.”