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Smith County Judge Nathaniel Moran at a meeting of the Smith County Commissioners Court on March 27, 2018, in Tyler, Texas. Moran is the presiding officer on the court. (Erin Mansfield/Tyler Morning Telegraph)

Smith County is about to enter its second year of sponsoring a mental health court, and officials say things are going well.

Members of the Smith County Commissioners Court plan to vote at their regular meeting on Tuesday to enter a second year of a statewide grant that funds the court.

The commissioners started the mental health court in 2017 but must take action to tell the grantor, the Texas Indigent Defense Commission, that the program will continue in fiscal year 2019.

The grant for fiscal year 2018 was about $73,000, according to County Judge Nathaniel Moran. The county was expected to pay 20 percent of the cost of running it, he said. The county’s share will rise to 40 percent in fiscal 2019 and 60 percent in fiscal 2020.

The court is designed to serve people with mental health issues who have been accused of repeated misdemeanors, such as criminal trespassing, and would be more likely to change their behavior through treatment instead of incarceration.

Doug McSwane, a lawyer and mental health advocate in Tyler, helped start the court when he took the idea to Moran more than a year ago. He said his son, who took his own life in 2012, likely would have benefited from this type of program because he repeatedly broke minor laws.

McSwane said defendants benefit from a phenomenon called “black robe effect,” in which defendants with mental health issues are more likely to help improve their behavior when they are accountable to a judge, who also helps coordinate treatment.

"These type of courts have been successfully established all across the nation," McSwane said. He said about 75 percent of people who participate in them find success in managing their mental health, holding down jobs and otherwise improving their lives. 

Judge Jason Ellis, who presides over the Smith County Court at Law, also presides over the mental health court. The mental health court has seen about a dozen cases so far this year but can accommodate up to 25, according to Moran.

Moran said the program is still in its infancy, but has been successful because it has elevated the discussion of mental health in the community.

“For me success is not just objective,” Moran said. “It’s also measured in community awareness. It’s measured in momentum and motivation towards other needed regional stopgap measures for mental health issues.

“There’s a lot of bigger solutions that we need to get to, but this is a great first step for the county, and that’s the way we discussed it last year," Moran said. “It was never billed as this is the goal point. This is the starting point for getting into the mental health issue.” 

A full copy of the Smith County Commissioners Court agenda is available on TylerPaper.com.

Government Reporter

Erin came to Tyler from Vermont, where she worked for VTDigger.org and previously the Rutland Herald. She received her B.A. in Economics and Spanish from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where she also attended journalism school.

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