The Lawrence County Public Defender Agency hopes to connect more people facing criminal charges with mental health and substance abuse services starting next year. The project is funded by a more than $100,000 federal grant.
The grant is about 40 percent larger than a similar award from last year, which allowed the agency to start the program. The public defender’s office screens people facing charges to determine if they’re at-risk for drug abuse or suffering from mental health problems.
Chief Public Defender David Shircliff says, until now, many of their efforts focused on those facing felony charges. They plan to expand the screenings to all clients next year.
“Our hope is, based on this opioid epidemic, is that people charged with a misdemeanor, if they’re connected at all with drug use or mental illness, the hope is we can get them treatment as quickly as possible, support them in their treatment so they don’t continue to move in and out of the criminal justice system,” Shircliff says.
The agency expects to screen and assess about 700 clients by the end of the year. Shircliff says the program’s already making a big difference in Lawrence County.
“The difference it’s made is this: if someone comes to a sentencing, or someone comes and pleads their case and the judge is going to sentence them, if they’ve demonstrated to the court that their main issue was either drug addiction or mental health issues, and they’ve received treatment, and they’ve started to become healthier, then judges will usually give them a sentence that’s supportive of their recovery or their treatment,” he says.
The grant will allow the public defender’s office to hire a treatment interventions case manager full time, in addition to two part-time workers. Shircliff hopes it can serve as a model for other counties facing the same challenges.