COVINGTON—District Attorney Warren Montgomery presented special awards Wednesday (Oct. 7) to District Judge Peter J. Garcia and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) St. Tammany for their work on behalf of people with mental illness in the criminal justice system.
The awards presentations were the highlight of an afternoon reception Montgomery hosted on the third floor of the courthouse in recognition of National Recovery Month (September) and Mental Health Awareness Week (Oct. 5-Oct.9).
“We’re really here talking about what we as a community can do with the intersection of mental illness and substance abuse in the criminal justice system,” Montgomery told the crowd of attorneys, social workers, health care providers, mental health advocates, law enforcement officers, and political leaders assembled on the third floor of the courthouse. “We’re trying to solve problems.”
National studies have shown that the vast majority of incarcerated men and women throughout the country (about 85 percent) have substance abuse issues, about half of them suffer from some form of mental illness, and 30 percent have co-occurring mental illness and substance abuse issues.
“The criminal justice system cannot simply turn its head and look the other way,” said Master of Ceremonies Tony LeMon, Chief of the Civil Division in the District Attorney’s Office.
Montgomery praised Judge Garcia for his vision in helping to create the 22nd Judicial District’s Behavioral Health Court. The court, which began operating in 2011, directs participating defendants who have a pre-diagnosed mental illness to various community resources offering the help they need. Judge Garcia and a team of mental health providers, social workers, advocates, attorneys, and social workers then monitor the progress of each participating defendant. The participants can avoid jail as long as they cooperate and stay on the road to recovery.
Behavioral Health Court is one of several problem-solving courts in the district, which covers St. Tammany and Washington parishes. The specialty courts include three sections of Adult Drug Court, a new Juvenile Drug Court, Sobriety Court, Re-entry Court, and Family Reunification Court. The presiding judges voluntarily take on the extra duties on top of their regular dockets.
“We don’t like being in this position,” Garcia said during his remarks. “But we’re put here and have to deal with what we have.”
What exists is a parish where 40,000 people are living with various forms of mental illness—8,500 of them with serious mental illness, Garcia said of St. Tammany. At the same time, St. Tammany has the highest rate of incarceration in the state (954 inmates per 100,000 adult residents). “You can attribute whatever you want to that, but a lot of it has to do with mental illness,” Garcia said.
NAMI St. Tammany provides case management for Behavioral Health Court and leads the way for advocacy on mental health issues in the region. Without the organization, St. Tammany would not have made the major progress it has on addressing the issue, Montgomery said in presenting the award to Executive Director Nick Richard.
Richard said he was impressed by the cross-section of people in the room. In addition to Montgomery, the public officials who attended included Parish President Pat Brister, Sheriff Jack Strain, District Judges Allison H. Penzato and Scott C. Gardner, as well as West St. Tammany Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Lacey Toledano.
“We are so fortunate as a community to have such supportive people in our judicial system, law enforcement, parish government and the District Attorney’s Office, all working together in a coordinated effort to improve the lives of those living with mental illness,” Richard said. “This is really a credit to all of the leaders in our community here in St. Tammany Parish.”
The reception program also featured an invocation by Pastor Lawrence Weathersby of Living the Word International Church in Slidell and a solo by retired music teacher Hazel Bagent of Bogalusa.