Child Support Specialty Court
The collection of child support has always been a difficult problem for prosecutors throughout the United States. The only “teeth” the courts have for getting many fathers to adequately support their children is the threat of and actually imposing jail sentences. Then the noncustodial parent builds up an extensive arrearage of the child support debt, the ultimate penalty has universally been charging him/her with the felony offense of flagrant nonsupport.
This criminal sanction carries a severe ramification on the offender long after the service of time in prison or even the lesser sanction of probation. Now the individual has a criminal record and the chances of obtaining meaningful employment is drastically reduced. The tentacles of suffering after this, reaches the child, the mother, and the state. Trying to collect current payment obligations and past arrearage is like trying to dig through an iceberg with a child’s sandbox shovel. In Lexington, we have over 5,000 people who owe over $5,000 in arrearage. The amount is staggering.
In 2011, our office started a new program to attack this problem from a different perspective. District Judge Bruce Bell consented to serve as Judge for the newly created Child Support Specialty Court. When our office charges an individual with a felony nonsupport charge, they get the option of having their case heard by the Grand Jury and facing the resulting criminal conviction or having his case monitored by Judge Bell. The choice is easy for most individuals.
By choosing to take his “chance” in the Specialty court, each person is closely evaluated for drug/alcohol dependence, education, employment skills, and parenting history. Our office provides three employees to supervise each individual, and we closely monitor each of these categories.
In the last two years, we have contacted 100 businesses which have agreed to hire convicted felons. Through our office, over 36 individuals have obtained employment and since the creation of Judge Bell’s court, the participants have paid $103,000 into their child support obligations.
If the accused does not have regular and meaningful contact with their child, the Judge requires him/her to attend 16 weeks of parenting classes, which this office provides with a highly qualified employee with a social work degree.
Every week, Judge Bell monitors the progress or lack thereof of each defendant, and it becomes quickly apparent to every individual that we are taking a special interest in their progress.
There are similar programs like this across the country with one major exception. In our program, the individual who successful complies with the programs in his/her life that we monitor and who is able to hold a steady job and make substantial headway on the arrearage receives a dismissal of the felony charge, and THE RECORD IS EXPUNGED.
My goal for this office is to gradually expand this program to include more defendants and more judges or a full-time judge to handle the caseload.
Mental Health Specialty Court
The Mental Health Diversion Court in Fayette County grew out of a two-year process of community meetings aimed at addressing issues of homelessness and criminalization of mental illness. The Court’s purpose is to provide an alternative to the traditional revolving door of jail/hospital/street for people with severe and persistent mental illness. These individuals are at a high risk of frequent arrest due to conduct resulting from their symptom burden. The Court uses a therapeutic model of jurisprudence to connect participants with services to support them in their recovery.
Candidates for Mental Health Diversion Court include accused criminal defendants charged with Class A or B misdemeanors or with nonviolent felony offenses in District Court. They are required to undergo a mental health status evaluation or to provide other documentation of an appropriate diagnosis. Once accepted, participants begin attending weekly court sessions, as well as recovery group sessions. The Court Coordinator monitors participants to ensure that they attend all required sessions and remain compliant with appropriate therapy and medication. Because so many people with a mental illness also struggle with substance abuse, the Court may order random drug screens and attendance at addiction recovery groups, if appropriate.
The Mental Health Diversion Court began as an unfunded program with all members of the treatment team volunteering their time for staffing and court sessions. Since then, Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government awarded NAMI Lexington a three-year grant to help fund the Court. These funds allowed a full-time Mental Health Court Coordinator to be hired. The remaining team members are volunteers from the legal and mental health professions, including Kentucky Peer Specialists. These individuals, also diagnosed with mental health or co-occurring substance use disorders, have been trained by the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services to provide social and emotional support to others who are similarly diagnosed.
This program currently has participants with diverse backgrounds, diagnoses, and legal histories. Our referrals have come from defense attorneys, family members, mental health professionals, and police officers concerned about obtaining help for mentally ill individuals engaged in criminal behavior. Our treatment team has assisted participants with finding housing, appropriate therapy, and sponsors for those who are struggling with addiction. The Mental Health Diversion Court held its first session in November, 2014.
Veteran’s Treatment Court
The Fayette County Attorney’s Office has been deeply involved in the development and implementation of a Veterans Treatment Court in Fayette County. The goal is to specifically address the issues and trauma faced by our veterans that hamper their ability to return to a productive, civilian life. The treatment agenda is individually tailored to each veteran’s needs.
Veterans Treatment Court, overseen by Circuit Judge Tom Travis, is a voluntary program that includes regular court appearances, extensive and intensive individual and group counseling sessions, random drug and alcohol testing, mental health treatment, and regular attendance at recovery/self-help meetings. It is only open to veterans who are currently in our criminal legal system. Each veteran in the program acquires a veteran mentor who can relate to the experiences that have contributed to the legal issues the veteran participant currently faces. Additionally, the program offers assistance with housing and job placement issues. The program lasts a minimum of 18 months.
Our program started as a pilot program in October, 2013. We received a full grant commitment in October, 2014. The grant allows us to accept and treat veterans who, although they have served our country, may not qualify for full veteran’s benefits. The program has been extremely successful in other parts of the country and appears to be fulfilling the same reduced recidivism rates here in Fayette County.
In September, 2013, Drug Court was started in the Fayette District Court in order to target individuals who were addicted to heroin. At this point, a majority of the participants are referred by our office due to their addiction to heroin, but a heroin addiction is not a prerequisite. They must be approved by Drug Court personnel in order to participate in the program.
Participants are required to attend AA or NA meetings, attend group sessions, complete writing assignments, submit to random drug tests, obtain a job or attend unemployment group, and meet with their caseworkers. Participants in need of in-patient treatment receive it without cost. If these terms are not met, or a participant commits a new offense while in Drug Court, sanctions are imposed on the participant. Those sanctions vary from writing a paper, community service to jail time. If there is restitution to be paid to a victim, the restitution and the court costs are required to be paid while in Drug Court. Those individuals who do not have a high school diploma are provided the opportunity to work with a specialist to assist them in obtaining their GED.
In Drug Court, we see lives transformed by participation in the program and living a drug-free life. Participants see individuals just like themselves, who are struggling from addiction, and they form a common bond in order to assist each other. Many families have been restored; participants begin to maintain consistent employment; housing is obtained; and participants continue their education that had been abandoned for drugs. Upon completion of Drug Court, the record of the conviction is expunged; however, they have a lifetime to remember how Drug Court changed their lives.