In 2008, the Kalamazoo 8th District Court of Michigan established a Mental Health Recovery Court [MHRC]. The program started after some local judges noticed they were seeing the same people over and over — mostly on misdemeanor charges rather than felonies — and that many of them had mental health challenges with co-occurring substance abuse. With the idea of getting at the root causes and finding ways to eliminate them before their crimes became more serious, these innovative justices took their idea to Kalamazoo Community Mental Health & Substance Abuse Services. With the collaboration of defense attorneys, the county prosecutor and almost every mental health program in Kalamazoo County, the Mental Health Recovery Court was formed.
The Wellness Recovery Action Plan [WRAP] has been a major part of this recovery-oriented approach since its inception. In the five years since the program began, 161 people have completed the WRAP class, 147 of which were participants of the program, 12 were staff, and 2 were natural supports of the participants. One of the judges also completed the WRAP training, which included making a WRAP plan for himself. According to Bob Butkiewicz, Program Supervisor for the MHRC, “WRAP became the philosophy of the court.”
The program is completely voluntary. Participants are identified by the judges, the prosecuting attorney, probation officers, and Kalamazoo Community Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. There are set criteria as to eligibility: no pattern of violent behavior, no more than two prior felony convictions of any kind, no weapons at the time of the arrest, and that probable cause exists to change the referring offense. Eligible offenses include retail fraud [3rd degree], trespassing, disorderly conduct, malicious destruction of property, larceny and embezzlement [under $200,000], and illegal entry. The judge speaks individually with each participant, sometimes for 5 minutes or more.
Participants are given the choice to participate or not and can drop out whenever they choose. Rather than serve jail time, they must attend recovery court every two weeks until they reach Phase II, when they can cut back to monthly attendance. Those who “graduate” from the program have their misdemeanors removed from their records, and those with felony charges may have them reduced to misdemeanors. Bob Butkiewicz says, “I think the strong incentive is recovery, positive reinforcement by the judge,” he said. “For some, this is the first time they have been spoken to with respect, and they experience the revelation that they are being given the tools for self advocacy.”
WRAP is an integral and complimentary part of this program. Peer support specialists like Jamor James and Doug Dougherty are Copeland Center trained WRAP Facilitators who have a long history of recovery and firsthand experience with the criminal justice system and who uphold the values and ethics of WRAP. Through classes and workshops, they work with case managers to engage and coach participants to adopt and maintain a recovery oriented lifestyle. They also assist in other requirements for success such as completing assessments, completion of community service work, continued education, finding a job, and solving housing issues. Bus tokens for transportation are provided. Fines may be waived by the judge for those who graduate with special distinction, giving an extra boost for a fresh start to those living below the poverty line. WRAP Facilitator Doug Dougherty observes, “We see changes in individuals as they move into recovery making small decisions for themselves, accepting responsibility for themselves. We know who they are. It’s obvious to us when they are at graduation day with a certificate in their hand, before the judge, with applause, who has really done the work or not.”
In 2012, an independent evaluator was brought in to determine outcomes of the program1. The evaluation data revealed that graduating from the Mental Health Recovery Court is strongly predictive of reduced jail days, and that two factors were the strongest predictors of MHRC graduation: being married [and or having dependents], and completing WRAP. In addition to the reduction in jail time served, graduates of the program had fewer overall Emergency Room visits, fewer psychiatric hospital days, and fewer crisis residential days. They found that WRAP completion and MHRC graduation are closely linked. Those who completed WRAP were 66 times more likely to graduate from the program than those who either never took the WRAP courses or didn’t complete them.
WRAP is being successfully used in Criminal Justice settings across the country. The five Key Recovery Concepts; Hope, Personal Responsibility, Education, Self-Advocacy, and Support, are proving to truly be the keys to success for those who need help in becoming contributing members of the community. Jamor James sums it up, “Recovery is not the absence of challenges, it is the individual journey you take to learn to live the life that you want to live in spite of them.”
In these current times, when ”mental health” courts are constantly in the news for coercive and involuntary treatment, programs like this can shine a light on a voluntary and recovery focused approach that works, as opposed to a compliance based approach that is inhumane and gives people no choices.