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Ontario County Mental health court ready to open doors

After 18 months of planning and incorporating discussions from representatives from all aspects of the legal system, Ontario County is preparing to initiate a treatment court that will address the unmet mental health needs of people who wind up in prison.

One participant already has been identified and the mental health court could be up and running this week or next, if not sooner.

One thing already is certain: “We definitely have enough enthusiasm to have a treatment court for mental health,” said Betsey Lee, resource coordinator for the treatment courts in Ontario County.

“We want to help solve the underlying reasons why people get in trouble with the law,” Lee said.

Mental health problems have come to the forefront after several high-profile shooting incidents around the country. The court is one way to help people find the appropriate treatment and avoid future contact in the legal system.

The setup is similar to the county’s drug treatment court.

The operation will use much of the same staff and the same courtroom at the Ontario County Courthouse. Canandaigua City Court Judge Stephen D. Aronson, who also is acting family and county court judge, will preside over both treatment courts.

In fact, the mental health court will be held right after the drug treatment court lets out.

A participant will undergo a mental health assessment and has to meet certain criteria in order to be accepted, Lee said. For instance, candidates with mental health difficulties will be referred to the court, but only after a team determines the participant poses no threat to the community.

And once accepted, the participant still has to do the work. The treatment court isn’t about avoiding jail time, Lee said.

“It’s really hard work to go through a treatment court,” Lee said. “It’s definitely the harder row to hoe.”

The idea received a lot of support from all aspects of the court system, from prosecution — an assistant district attorney has been assigned to the court — to defense to probation.

Implementing the court was truly a group effort and it took a lot of collaboration to put together, said Ontario County Public Defender Leanne Lapp.

“We’re ready to go,” Lapp said. “I’m so excited to have this court happening. There is a real need for it.”

Seventh Judicial Administrative Judge Craig J. Doran said he is looking to expand upon what’s working in the county treatment courts into other counties. The Seventh Judicial District encompasses eight counties in all.

In addition to the mental health court, Ontario County also is looking to add a veterans court as well.

“We’re very excited about that,” said Justice Doran.

The county’s drug treatment court has been successful in reducing the recidivism rate of its participants, Lee said, and she is confident that will prove true for the mental health court.

The hope is to establish stability and discipline in the participants’ lives in the hopes it reduces contact with the law, Lee said. Achieving the goal of a happier, healthier person contributing to society means a lot of hard work on the part of the participant, and it doesn’t always work out for people, she acknowledged.

“The carrot at the end is amazing,” Lee said.