By Becky Brasfield
Mental health probation is a court sentence that mandates mental health treatment for a defendant pleading guilty to an offense related to a psychiatric episode. Under the supervision of the mental health probation department, the defendant typically serves a minimum of two years of probation and may have specific conditions, such as drug testing or community service.
Mental health probation can be a daunting task, but with the proper support, a person can successfully complete it, recover and go on to live a fulfilling life. Here are the aspects of what a mental health probation looks like:
Mental Health Probation Officer
Each probationer reports to a mental health probation officer assigned by the court and probation department. A mental health probation officer, in addition to their training as a correctional officer, has educational and professional training in either psychology, social work or mental health.
At the start of mental health probation, the probationer must see a mental health provider and obtain a treatment plan that must be released to the mental health probation department. The probationer will have to comply with the treatment plan and the probation department will check to see if they are attending the recommended frequency of treatment and hold the person accountable to their treatment plan.
Mental Health Probation Assessment
At the beginning of probation, a person must take an assessment to determine whether they will have to report to their mental health probation officer once or twice per month.
The probation officer gives the probationer a date and time to report each month (or twice a month). If there is a conflict with a pre-set reporting date, the person should talk to their probation officer about it in advance. If they are late reporting in to their probation officer, it can be considered a serious offense and, if it is not resolved, can be termed a “violation of probation” and the person may be cited for a reason for re-arrest and incarceration.
Privacy and Release of Information
Mental health probation is mandated by a court. In other words, a person may switch providers, but has to remain in treatment until the probation period is over. Additionally, during that time, probationers are subject to a lack of certain privacies, such as keeping their treatment information private. In this situation, a probationer is required to release their treatment information to their probation officer.
If the treatment plan recommends medication management, the mental health probation officer will require proof from the probationer of compliance with a medication regimen. In some cases, copies of receipts of filling prescriptions are enough, but in other cases, mental health probation officers will ask for more proof.
Therapy and Psychiatry Appointments
Mental health probation officers will also require proof of attendance at therapy and psychiatry appointments. Documentation may include monthly status updates from the therapist or care manager or weekly appointment letters.
When a person is sentenced to mental health probation, there are usually court costs and probation fees associated with the sentence. They can range from a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars.
Some courts and probation departments will adjust the fees for low-income clients and arrange a payment plan. However, judges determine whether a probation can be completed and fees are typically a condition of completion. This can be extremely difficult for people surviving without employment or on social security income.
Probationers may experience an unannounced home visit to ensure that they actually live at the location provided to the probation department.
Most people no longer have court dates after being sentenced to mental health probation except at the end of their probation. However, some people have to do progress reports in court, which can be very stressful. If they are reporting to a mental health probation officer and complying with the terms of the probation, their status updates in court should be successful.
Mental Health Probation vs. Regular Probation
Mental health probation can give helpful context to a legal situation to explain that a person did not have criminal intent, but, instead, did not receive proper treatment at the time of an incident. When people understand the challenges related to having an untreated mental health condition, they can understand that having a medical problem doesn’t make you a criminal. However, the downside is that mental health probation involves more supervision than regular probation and a different level of reporting and loss of privacy.
Mental health courts are becoming more popular, but until we can fully decriminalize mental illness, we should learn as much about the existing system as we can to help people successfully navigate the process.
Becky Brasfield is a certified recovery support specialist and mental health advocate in Chicago. She has been volunteering with NAMI Chicago since 2013 and was a keynote speaker at the 2015 NAMI Light the Darkness Mental Health Awareness gala.
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