Payson Courts  courtroom

Courtrooms across the state remain more empty than full with the suspension of jury trials until April 17 and other measures designed to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A man proudly reports he was able to turn down a drink offered to him.

A woman who completed her GED.

The man who found a new sense of purpose working with the homeless.

What do they all have in common?

Restorative court and a behavioral health issue.

Judge Dorothy Little and Payson Town Prosecutor Mary Bystricky have initiated a different type of program for repeat offenders of low level crimes with mental illness.

The idea came about after they noticed some faces showed up in municipal court repeatedly.

“Substance abuse ran through (the cases),” said Bystricky.

“Their lack of a home or home life also alerted us,” said Little.

Family members and law enforcement officers confirmed the hunches of the two court officials — the repeat offenders suffered some sort of mental illness or behavioral health issue that led them to make poor choices.

The two knew these folks need to be “identified with mental health and/or substance abuse issues from reappearing in court on future cases,” said Bystricky.

They gathered other local agencies that often work with repeat offenders to suggest an idea — Restorative Court.

The program, now functioning in Arizona cities such as Mesa, seeks to find therapy, maintenance drugs (if needed) and support for repeat offenders suffering mental illness. The hope? Transition repeat offenders into self-sufficient members of the community.

The offenses aren’t normally dangerous in nature. A repeat offender might lose their temper and get an assault charge. Or they yell at a family member and the arresting officer charges them with domestic violence.

DUIs are not eligible for Restorative Court, however.

The law enforcement, counseling, criminal justice and probation organizations all bought in, especially after they understood both Little and Bystricky would make sure to participate closely in each case.

If arresting officers identify possible signs of a mental health or substance abuse issue, they can now say, “Hey, I understand this person has a charge, but he might be appropriate for Restorative Court,” said Bystricky.

She then looks at the criminal history and the facts of the case to see if the offender would be a good candidate for Restorative Court.

Challenges and structure

The program faced a couple of major hurdles. The first, how to get the repeat offenders to participate.

“I think the big thing is mental illness is a terrible stigma,” said Little.

It’s hard for repeat offenders to admit they have a mental illness and need outside assistance.

The other challenge — keeping them on medications.

“To me, it’s one thing to get sober — and it’s another to stay in recovery. It is one thing to get on medication — and it’s another to keep taking those medications,” said Bystricky.

So, the two created an eight- to 10-month program with biweekly to weekly case management meetings “to start establishing that network to help,” said Bystricky.

The local mental health agencies, Southwest Behavioral Health Services and Community Bridges, play a vital role in the process, offering counseling, medications and even help finding a job.

“Our restorative (court) program includes our crisis interventionist meeting with the judge and prosecutor at least twice a month, preferably weekly,” said Edward O’Brien, Southwest’s program director.

When SWBHS, CBI, Little and Bystricky meet, they look at several markers including: regular attendance to group and individual counseling, finding and keeping a job, and taking medications.

“It’s a structure. The hope is to get individuals involved and engaged so it becomes a habit and continues,” said Little.

Criminal justice

system adds a dash of compassion

Little has worked in the court system for 30 years. She knows exactly when the mindset changed from punitive to compassionate.

“Do you remember the Ferguson issue? The U.S. Department of Justice got involved and they had a study done,” she said.

Ferguson, Mo. had massive riots after a police officer killed an 18-year-old black man.

The report on the incident not only appalled Little and other judges, it launched a soul searching study by the national criminal justice system through the Task Force on Fair Justice for All.

“The separation of powers didn’t exist,” said Little of what she read in the report.

The Ferguson police chief was in charge of the Ferguson courts. Poor people were sitting in jail with fines bigger than their living expenses. Little explained that was unconstitutional.

“People should not be disparately punished because they are poor,” said Little of the mission of the task force.

Eric Holder, the attorney general at the time, sent out a letter to the chief justices of each state asking, “we need to look at what we are doing,” said Little.

Arizona was one of the first states to convene a panel of judges to reconsider unconstitutional punishments and how to handle repeat offenders suffering from mental illness. Little sat on that panel.

She learned a lot, but it hasn’t been easy.

“The culture is changing and it’s hard for old judges to understand change,” said Little.

It was in the spirit of this criminal justice reform that Bystricky and Little started the Restorative Court program.

They have a contracted agreement with the expectations spelled out — show up for counseling, take meds, find a job — and work off the fine. Yes, every case has a fine, but with Restorative Court, the offender can either do community service, further their education or complete an alternative project set up by Little.

“I have a list of books,” she said.

Little will accept a book report if the client has health limitations that keep them from doing community service.

The program has changed lives, they say.

“Everyone deserves a second chance and when people are able to address their symptoms of mental illness, then they are able to become thriving members of the community,” said O’Brien.

Successes

Bystricky will always remember the young man who brought his first paycheck to the courtroom case management meeting.

“He was full of confidence,” she said, “he could do something for himself.”

She said she sees repeat offenders relish a second chance.

They wash their hair and improve their appearance.

“They have a smile on their face because they have done this,” she said.

In a little more than a year and a half, the program has had a tremendous success rate. “The program has had 13 graduates, no new arrests,” said Little.

Three could not complete the program and so were removed.

The program is “rather private” however, so follow up isn’t easy.

“We are gauging our success by the lack of recidivism,” said Little.

O’Brien believes it’s successful simply for what it does for those struggling.

“I absolutely agree that many of the members of the program are grateful for the second chance and many of them have expressed their gratefulness to me,” said O’Brien.

Contact the reporter at

Contact the reporter at mnelson@payson.com

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