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State Supreme Court announces new commission on mental health

New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Briana Zamora
New Mexico Supreme Court
New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Briana Zamora

On any given day, up to 400,000 people with mental illnesses are in jails and prisons across the United States. That’s according to a report by the Legislative Finance Committee, which also found that people with mental health diagnoses are likely to spend more time behind bars. Now the New Mexico Supreme Court has created a new commission to address how the criminal justice system responds to those facing mental health issues. Supreme Court Justice Briana Zamora told KUNM the court is accepting applications until May 27th from community members who would like to join the commission on mental health.

BRIANA ZAMORA: We're going to recruit judges and attorneys who specialize in these areas. But we also want representatives from the executive branch, from the legislative branch, from law enforcement, and behavioral health specialists as well as individuals who work with the Department of Health.

One subcommittee will focus on education and training for the various partners. The other subcommittee wants to look at something that other states are doing but New Mexico is not, which is diversion and reentry programs. And that's more for competency cases. Right now, if someone's deemed incompetent and they're sent to the Behavioral Health Institute, the focus is to treat them to competency, not to address their mental health problems. We would couple that with some actual treatment and rehabilitation.

We also have a group that will work on legislation, rules and policy. For instance, the competency statute in New Mexico hasn't been changed or amended for several decades, so it's pretty dated. We're also going to look at behavioral health and competency with respect to children, which is lacking as well in New Mexico. There's even fewer resources for juveniles than there is for adults. But lastly, I want to point out that coming together as a group from all of these various entities will alone be a huge step in the right direction because we're able to find out what resources are available or how we can make changes and know what issues are going on, for example, at the Department of Health and they can understand what issues are going on within our court systems.

KUNM: Is the intention for the courts, then, to refer people to outside programs and then kind of move on or will there be constant involvement with individuals through their mental health evaluation or treatment processes?

ZAMORA: The Commission will look at both. I think as far as the court's involvement, as I talked about the diversionary program, a judge would kind of preside over a program of that nature. And we do have mental health courts in some of our courts that do follow them from beginning to end, but I envision that the diversionary programs will have judicial involvement from beginning to end. What is the most frustrating as a trial judge, at least it was for me, is those individuals who are deemed incompetent because they are not going to succeed on probation or pretrial services like a person who was found competent, might be able to. They need a different level of supervision and treatment that's specific to their needs. And what ends up happening now in our competency cases is if someone's deemed incompetent, unless there's a finding of dangerousness, their case is dismissed, which means that they're leaving the jail or prison or wherever they may be without any rehabilitation or help. There's not any assistance with trying to teach them how to function, to live on their own maybe, or to find a residential facility that would be suitable for them. That's just not happening right now, and that's why you see a lot of the revolving door.

KUNM: Police and first responders are typically the first contacts with the system for people with mental health issues. I wonder how first responders might be involved.

ZAMORA: I think it's extremely important to have a law enforcement perspective. The Albuquerque Police Department has a unit specifically tasked with responding to individuals with mental illness. They're trained in it, they understand it, and there's there's other programs and I want them at the table. And where that might come in for example, is in training and education, but also in just exchanging information. Perhaps if there are certain circumstances where the police do not want a warrant issued they can inform the court so that they can try to address the situation before it becomes a full blown case. So those would be small examples of how we can just use the exchange of information to better our system.

KUNM: What sort of timeline can you share for when the commission will be staffed and running and then when will we first start seeing results in the courts?

ZAMORA: So kind of the larger scale changes or piloting programs, things of that nature, I would say about a year out but the smaller changes and the exchange of information and trying to provide more resources to individuals who are part of the justice system I think can happen within a few months.

This report is part of our Your New Mexico Government project, a collaboration between KUNM radio and New Mexico PBS. Support for public media provided by the Thornburg Foundation.

Kaveh Mowahed is a reporter with KUNM who follows government, public health and housing. Send story ideas to kaveh@kunm.org.