Bill aims to fund mental health courts in Nebraska

A new bill introduced in the legislature aims to create and fund a pilot program for mental...
A new bill introduced in the legislature aims to create and fund a pilot program for mental health courts in Nebraska. (Source: KOLN)(KOLNKGIN)
Published: Jan. 30, 2020 at 9:45 PM CST
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The most recent data available indicates that at least 61,000 people in Nebraska have a serious mental health issue.

Now, there's an effort at the Capitol to stop the stigma around mental health issues by changing the court system.

Sen. Suzanne Geist, who represents part of Lincoln, wants to help fund the state's first mental health court.

Mental health court is a diversion program aimed at helping people who have committed what the court determines "eligible offenses" and has been screened for a mental health issue.

"One of the things we want to do is to keep individuals who are suffering from severe mental illness out of our correctional system and put them back into society after treatment," Geist said. "It'll be very intensive. It will be very education heavy, and treatment heavy."

Lancaster County Public Defender Joe Nigro has been trying to bring mental health courts to Nebraska for several years.

"Throughout my career, it's been very frustrating because the criminal justice system is ill-equipped for dealing with mental health issues," Nigro said. "Now I feel like there's a light at the end of the tunnel."

Across the country, there are roughly 250 mental health courts, but there are none in Nebraska.

Local attorneys say they see many people fall through the cracks of the system and never get the help they need.

"I think judges and prosecutors and defense attorneys they see a wrap sheet, and these charges just down the line, but that's not who the person is," said Justin Kalemkiarian, an attorney with Berry Law Firm.

The pilot program Geist wants to create would pull about $1.4 million from the general fund over the next two years, but Nigro said when you compare costs of mental health court and incarceration, taxpayers reap a benefit.

"It costs probably $5-7,000 to pay for somebody going through problem solving court, prison is about $35,000 a year," Nigro said.

If LB1017 is passed, the pilot program for mental health court would be established in Lancaster, Douglas and Sarpy Counties.

The bill is set for hearing on Wednesday, Feb. 5.