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'Going to jail is not the right answer for some of these individuals,' judge says

'Going to jail is not the right answer for some of these individuals,' judge says

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Overwhelmed by a bad day at work, Edward Renfro swallowed 30 valium pills, washed them down with a 12-pack of Bud Light and got behind the wheel of his 1991 minivan, hell bent on killing himself.

The 37-year-old Billings man blacked out and wrapped his vehicle around a utility pole near MetraPark. He remembers nothing about the July 3, 2012, crash. All he knows is that he woke up in the hospital with a cut and bloodied face.

He was alive — and in the psych ward.

It was his third suicide attempt and 20th stay in the unit in about 30 months. He has also spent time in the Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs.

He lives with schizoaffective disorder, a condition in which a person experiences a combination of schizophrenia symptoms — such as hallucinations or delusions — and mood disorder symptoms, such as mania or depression.

“I have meltdowns a lot,” he said. “I have a mental illness.”

Regardless of his mental health condition, there were consequences for his actions.

He was charged with drunken driving, his second offense. It was another in a growing list of charges that included partner or family member assault and unlawful restraint.

Until now, he most likely would have been locked up in the Yellowstone County Detention Facility, part of a nationwide crisis often referred to as the “criminalization of mental illness.”

But, he was not put behind bars.

Instead, he is one of nine people voluntarily enrolled in Enhanced Treatment Court, formerly called Mental Health Treatment Court, which is offered through Billings Municipal Court under the direction of Judge Sheila Kolar.

Enhanced Treatment Court is an alternative to traditional sentencing. It helps to get participants on a path of active recovery.

The court, which can accommodate 20 participants, offers treatment to those with misdemeanor offenses, the bulk of which are drunken driving charges, theft, drug possession and partner or family member assault. Many of those enrolled are homeless. Clients range in age from their 20s to their 60s.

“Going to jail is not the right answer for some of these individuals,” Kolar said.

Enhanced Treatment Court includes attending various support groups, 12-step programs, community service, regular blood alcohol and urinalysis tests, weekly appearances before Kolar, frequent check-ins with case managers and more.

Each participant will be enrolled for 12 to 18 months. The program is built on the pillars of accountability and reassurance, not punishment, and offers participants more than a pill.

Upon successful completion of the program, fines, fees and jail time might be reduced or waived. Each client is unique; each case is different.

“The purpose is to help individuals who have mental health issues and co-occurring addictions get the help they need so they can actually survive in the community, be independent, be able to work, have a home, hang out with their family and live a life without going to jail every week because they have not addressed those issues,” Kolar said.

Renfro, who hopes to graduate from Enhanced Treatment Court in March, said it has helped him become more responsible about making the right decisions. It also has helped keep him out of the Montana State Hospital, he said, adding that program provides essential support, guidance and structure.

“The number one thing that they provide for me is my reassurance that I’m doing all the correct decision-making,” Renfro said. “The treatment court has given me a positive attitude on life.”

Enhanced Treatment Court, funded with a two-year, $200,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, has quickly gained support from mental health advocates in the community, including the South Central Montana Regional Mental Health Center and the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Billings.

There is a growing body of research on the effectiveness of such programs, which are popular nationwide.

A study published in June in “Law and Human Behavior,” tracked mentally ill defendants in a District of Columbia mental health court program. The study found that those who completed the special diversion program were less likely to reoffend, compared with mentally ill defendants who completed traditional criminal proceedings.

“When a person is seeking recovery from their mental health issues, they are likely not to reoffend,” said Clementine Lindley, executive director of NAMI-Billings. “Ultimately, this court is beneficial to the Billings community as it saves money and helps rehabilitate our citizens.”

Lisa Wetzler, a licensed addictions counselor, serves as a liaison from the Mental Health Center to the Enhanced Treatment Court.

She said the court is a “good fit” for those with mental illness such as bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia because it allows the client the opportunity to deal with their legal issues while simultaneously receiving help for their illness.

“We want them to be successful,” Wetzler said.

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